Q&A – More trash or less? The pandemic’s impact on waste & recycling

Q&A of the Day – More trash or less? The pandemic’s impact on waste& recycling

Each day I’ll feature a listener question that’s been submitted by one of these methods. 

Email: brianmudd@iheartmedia.com

Twitter: @brianmuddradio

Facebook: Brian Mudd https://www.facebook.com/brian.mudd1

Today’s entry: A thought occurred to me and I wondered how much additional trash is being generated by all of the takeout? I can imagine that we are using a lot more styro foam takeout containers, plastic bags, cardboard pizza boxes...in addition I'm guessing that the landfills are going to be full of old use face masks, plastic and latex gloves. I'm guessing we're saving a lot of money on gasoline but wasting it on throw-away plastic. It might be interesting to check it out.

Bottom Line: Alright, let’s take a look at the shutdown’s impact on how much garbage we’re producing. We’re far enough into this thing that we have industry data from garbage and waste collection services painting a picture of what’s changed in recent weeks. First, where is the most waste produced? Is it commercial or residential? The answer is...commercial. According to the EPA, during normal times...

  • 54% of garbage is produced commercially, compared to 46% that’s residential

Of course, we’re all spending a lot more time at home probably producing more garbage at the house than usual, right? The answer is yes. According to an average of reporting to WasteDive (an industry trade publication) residential waste collection is approximately 20% higher than average. So yes, to your original point, we are producing more trash on the home front. And yes, unfortunately we’re seeing and hearing reports of inconsiderate people throwing masks and gloves on the ground (though no specific data has been collected about how much of that is taking place). But, are we producing more trash overall? Nope. Like the economy it’s gone the other way...which makes sense with so many businesses shutdown. Just as residential garbage is up about 20%, the current averages show commercial garbage is down by about 20%. That all adds up to...less garbage. 

With the majority of garbage coming from businesses usually, a 20% decrease in commercial garbage along with a 20% increase in residential trash results in...a 1.6% overall decline in garbage during the shutdown. The decline would be even bigger if not for many suspended recycling programs in Florida and across the country. Untold tons of usual recyclables are being thrown out currently. While recycling continues throughout South Florida, that’s not the case everywhere. In fact, many recycling programs run the risk of being casualties of the crash in energy prices brought about by the coronavirus. Plastics are the second most commonly recycled items from households. With plastics being derived from oil and natural gas refined with polymers – recycling plastics has suddenly become far more expensive than simply producing new products. If the economics of plastic production vs recycling remain anywhere near where they are today – there's the risk of a collapsing of the recycling industry generally which would lead to more garbage being produced due to the pandemic long-term. This will be worth watching going forward. But yeah, for now, less trash due to the virus. 

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