Garbage Workers Are on the Virus Front Lines, Too
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- No class of Americans was spared during the 1918 flu pandemic, including the garbage men. In San Francisco, illness rapidly thinned their ranks, and trash piled up in streets and backyards, leaving the city little choice but to cover it with dirt. In Kansas City, Missouri, medical waste was tossed atop the household waste already piling up in public spaces, creating new hazards for the diminishing numbers of people employed to collect it, and those who lived, worked and played in the city. And in Baltimore, at least a quarter of the city’s sanitation workers didn’t report for duty at the peak of the pandemic, with predictably dirty and dangerous results.
A century later, trash collection is as reliable as a utility bill in most American towns and cities, and thoughts of pandemic trash piles are relics of a dirtier past. But the coronavirus outbreak has the potential to challenge those perceptions, and create unsanitary and potentially hazardous problems. Already, a few towns — including New York — are suspending or reducing some trash and recycling services to promote social distancing and prepare for lower staff levels that will stress collection and processing. These reductions won’t lead to a 1918-style trash crisis. But they are a reminder that the critical job of managing American waste is extremely vulnerable in a pandemic. Fortifying and protecting the companies, towns and workers who do this work must be a top priority for citizens and government alike.
Covid-19 poses several unique challenges for the U.S. waste collection and disposal industry and the 467,000 workers employed by it. Above all, it is likely to generate a surge in solid medical waste such as used surgical masks and empty IV bags. At the height of the epidemic in Wuhan, China, the city was producing 240 tons of medical waste a day, and the government had to deploy mobile treatment facilities to manage it. The good news is that, unlike China, the U.S. has sufficient capacity at specialized medical waste treatment centers to manage whatever is generated in hospitals and other medical facilities. In fact, it’s been managing medical wastes safely — including wastes far more hazardous than items carrying coronavirus — without much public notice, for years.
But there’s a related problem that isn’t so easily solved. Large-scale home quarantining, combined with large numbers of asymptomatic individuals, means that at least some of the medical waste generated in the U.S. (including all those masks) will be in home and office garbage and recycling bins. Nobody knows how much of a risk Covid-19 waste poses to sanitation workers. But it could be substantial: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reported last week that Covid-19 can remain infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces for days.
So far, there aren’t any American refuse and recycling workers publicly known to have the virus (a New York Department of Sanitation office worker was recently diagnosed). And, at the federal level at least, concern is low. Recently updated U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines suggest that waste workers handle office and home solid waste “with potential or known COVID-19 contamination like any other non-contaminated municipal waste.”
But across the industry, concern is rising about the impact on employees and the ability to collect and process waste. Some recycling centers are closing to maintain safe distances between customers and employees. Waste Management Inc., North America’s largest waste hauler, is reducing staffing levels and implementing social distancing at its plants, so as to reduce infection risk. The Teamsters, which represents thousands of waste management workers, sent letters to the three largest U.S. waste management companies, demanding action to protect the health of its members. In Platteville, Wisconsin, waste workers have been instructed not to pick up garbage that falls from a torn or ripped bag, for fear of infection. And the National Waste & Recycling Association, an association of almost 700 members, expressed concern last week to U.S. state agencies that — among other problems — personal protective equipment for waste workers is unavailable because of panic buying by the general public.
These precautionary steps and concerns will go a long way to ensuring that large numbers of waste workers will work safely through the pandemic. But more can be done. At the federal government level, OSHA should begin an immediate reassessment of its Covid-19 waste management guidelines in light of recent data on the persistence of the virus in aerosols and on surfaces.
Equally important, waste industry employers must strive to provide and enforce the use of personal protective gear, and workers must double-down in their commitment to using it. Too often, industry accidents happen because employees simply don’t like wearing gear or set it aside because it’s uncomfortable. Finally, Americans should take extra care with their waste and recycling, especially if it was generated in a quarantined home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using gloves when handling trash generated by an ill person. From a sick home or not, recyclable and non-recyclable waste should be double-bagged or placed in durable bags unlikely to rip, tear or burst. Doing so will not only protect the health of the people employed to collect your trash, but also help to maintain clean cities where disease outbreaks are rare and quick.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and the forthcoming "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."
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