England & Wales, Global, Scotland Communities and society, Covid-19

Who ever thought that taking the bins out would be a treat?

LGIU’s Kim Fellows writes on the importance of supporting waste management services amid increasing pressures due to the coronavirus crisis.  All LGIU Covid-19 resources are gathered in one place and you can also sign up to our Global-Local pandemic bulletin so you never miss an update.

Usually I think recycling and anything to do with bins is my husbands’ job, but these are not usual times so when I find myself wishing to go outside and needing an excuse, taking the bins out provides that excuse. On one of those occasions this week my walk with our bin to the front gate coincided with the bin lorry making its way down our street and I got the chance to chat (from a safe distance of course) with the refuse collection workers. Since I began working in zero-waste policy, I have become a bit of an armchair expert in waste management and I have a huge respect for everyone who works on the frontline in public services, including everyone working in environmental services. These employees are essential workers and, I believe, deserve greater acknowledgement and thanks for the work they do.

Anyway, we chatted and discussed infection rates in Spain, France and Italy and I was impressed with not only the dedication to the task in hand but also their kind and positive attitude. It is sad that some councils have had to tell people that in order to reduce infections not to approach workers, or try to hand extra items over, it would appear to be common sense. All around the country, from Brighton to Blackburn, countless recycling centres are closing to protect staff and the public, so pressures on bin collection will naturally increase as time goes by. This might be especially challenging when residents and business are using this enforced spell at home to do DIY, repairs, gardening and spring cleaning.

Councils are rightly working hard to prioritise and preserve bin collection services and protect staff.  Some councils are changing rotas because staff numbers have been reduced and everyone is working to ensure that crews can work together but keep a safe distance (a difficult task in bin lorries). Councils up and down the country are doing great work across local press, websites, Twitter and Facebook to keep information flowing and in some cases have FAQs sections on issues ranging from home composting to bulky uplifts. South Cambs District Council and Southwark Council, for example, have really clear pages on “bins” and I know many more councils are providing updates daily with key information to residents. It will be a demanding task to keep this information up to date but vital to be clear with people on what is happening. The private sector companies who operate household waste and recycling centres (sometimes in partnership with councils) have also shut,  putting more pressure on council street collections. Our recent briefing on fly-tipping is relevant and I have seen members of the public on twitter threating to fly-tip if council services are cut, making information dissemination to the public even more important.

A growing number of councils, such as Manchester and Bury, have decided to cut food and garden waste collections in order to preserve other services mainly the collection of general waste. In some areas there have been reductions in the frequency of recycling collections – especially glass collections, street cleaning and litter removal operations – again to preserve general waste collection. I have also seen many councils calling on the public not to drop litter, to clean up after their pets and take all litter and dog waste home to dispose of it. My question is why aren’t people already doing that? Dog owners are also being asked to keep control of their pets and when people are taking daily exercise and that is important advice to help maintain physical distancing when people are out and about.

Of utmost importance and on government advice, members of the public who are self-isolating are being asked to place waste and recycling in double-bagged plastic bags, NOT to put the rubbish out for 72 hours after it has been bagged up and to wash bin handles before putting out for collection. This is important information that I think this needs more publicity to protect staff and services. There have been newspaper reports of teams facing overflowing bins, and it is essential for the public to act responsibly and for teams to have PPE available.

Waste collection is a service that many of us take for granted, however at a time like this it has become abruptly clear that the people providing these services are key and essential workers. Together with other unsung heroes in LG – dinner ladies, janitors, cleaners, care workers and many more, refuse collection employees are working to help keep us safe and maintain vital, everyday services. I for one say thank you.

The Chartered Institution of Waste Management responded to a draft of new safety regulations by Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) to suggest that a hierarchy of preferred options may be the best way to reduce the risk for driver and collection crews. Read the full response here.

A recent CIWM newsletter contains more information.

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