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Expert view: De-risking waste collection in times of a crisis

(L-R) Tony Yates, Director at SLR Consulting, and Jonas Törnblom, Director at Envito.

By Jonas Törnblom, Director at Envito and Tony Yates, Director at SLR Consulting

Urban waste management is a critical function. When it breaks down, the consequences are wide reaching and its impact is felt across all parts of society.

Why, then, is the majority of the world’s waste management infrastructure built upon systems that are rarely assessed in the context of a global pandemic? Why are most of the world’s waste collection solutions unable to even withstand severe weather conditions?

A societal crisis can be defined as a state whereby existential consequences overwhelm resources, routines and entire organisations. It is also a state that can only be resolved with input from multiple parties.

In light of Covid-19, we should now assess how effective our urban waste management solutions are, not only in the context of a global pandemic, but also other disruptive events such as severe storms.

Different collection systems exhibit different advantages and disadvantages. Some may be more expensive than others, whilst some are more user and environmentally friendly. System resilience and robustness in the face of a severe crisis are, however, rarely prioritised when selecting an appropriate handling concept for cities, new developments and regeneration sites.

The three contenders: bin collection, underground containers and pneumatic waste transportation systems

Covid-19 has left few parts of society unaffected and its fallout continues to unfold. Yet, we have been here before. Previous pandemic episodes, which include the Black Death of the 14th century, two cholera pandemics of the 19th century and even the SARS outbreak in 2002, have a number of things in common. Firstly, they left few areas of the world unaffected and collectively killed millions of people. Secondly, they proliferated through waste such as contaminated food and water, and through vermin.

Reducing the infection potential of waste in a modern world

Surely now, in the 21st century, and whilst we are still in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, it is time to explore what a resilient waste management infrastructure looks like and consider what could be done to reduce the risk factors associated with waste handling.

If infectious diseases can be spread through waste material and animals, then implementing solutions that minimise – if not eradicate – physical handling of waste are essential.

As we begin an era of social distancing, it goes without saying that bin storage rooms and waste processing facilities, both of which carry risk of transmission, must be effectively managed. And, as more is known about the substantially higher risk of infection within indoor environments, outdoor disposal facilities are likely to come into the spotlight.

Designing in operational resilience

The majority of the world’s waste is still manually collected in bins or bags that line the streets of densely populated urban areas, are often overfull and are therefore vulnerable to littering and vermin.

Underground containers, which store waste in hidden chambers, remove aboveground risks of disease transmission and reduce the risk of attracting vermin in shared public spaces.

Automated waste collection systems (AWCS), also known as pneumatic waste collection systems, are another option. Not only do they store waste underground, limiting human interaction with waste and vermin, but they also transport waste automatically through an underground pipework to large containers, eliminating contact points between humans and waste.

The risks of physical contact with potentially contagious waste, and thereby disease, must be taken seriously. Therefore, it would be advisable to minimise the need for manual handling of waste bags and containers, and design out interactions between waste collectors and residents wherever possible. This becomes even more important if residential areas are to face continual localised lockdowns over the coming months.

Factors such as local storage capacity, the availability of skilled personnel and a system’s ability to operate automatically, or even remotely, are also key points to be considered.

From a bad weather perspective, some technologies have proven particularly resilient and have remained operational during some of the most severe storms.

Hurricane Sandy, for example, killed 72 Americans, affected 24 states, knocked out power to more than seven million people and caused an estimated $70 billion in damage. However, when Hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey coastline, destroying homes and entire streets, the area’s AWCS remained operational. In fact, the system was one of the only public services to remain operational throughout the entire disaster.

Futureproofing waste management during a crisis

The fact that the majority of the world’s population places bins and manual collections at the heart of their waste management strategy means that society is perpetually at risk; a precipice whereby a crisis – be it a pandemic or climate change – could negatively impact entire communities in a very short space of time.

It is time to embrace new methods and technologies; the potential costs for not doing so are far too great.

The Covid-19 crisis has been devastating and has focussed attention on the potential risks of waste management systems. Whether or not we are prepared for the next one remains to be seen.

About the authors

Jonas Törnblom with a 30 years executive background in the international environmental technology industry – and since 2017 advising companies, organisations and cities in the Nordic countries, Germany, Canada and China on cross sectional governance issues in the fields of energy, the environment and urban development.

Dr Tony Yates has provided evidence on the greenhouse gas and carbon impact of the proposal compared to alternative forms of municipal solid waste treatment. He has recently acted for Viridor at the planning appeal for the Avonmouth Energy from Waste facility.

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