NRRA and Solid Waste in the North Country

NRRA participated in the North Country Council's "Solid Waste in the North Country" event on August 19 for a discussion of solid waste management systems, the importance of recycling, and the general management of various types of waste in New Hampshire.  The event was held remotely and the speakers included Reagan Bissonnette, NRRA Executive Director, Brian Patnoe, NRRA Board member and Solid Waste Manager for the Town of Littleton, NH, and staff from the NH Department of Environmental Services.  

As part of her presentation, Reagan answered the following three questions for the nearly 30 attendees.  A summary of her answers are included below.   

What are you seeing or hearing in regards to how municipalities have adapted practices in response to COVID-19? 

There was much uncertainty in mid-March at the beginning of the pandemic, and some communities stopped recycling all or some recyclables based on reports that the virus could live on surfaces for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel.  NRRA held weekly calls for its municipal members and established a survey to gauge how facilities were responding to the pandemic. 

Those survey responses were used to create a Facility Impact Report, which included dozens of examples of how NRRA's municipal members responded to the pandemic.  The report divided member changes into four categories: (1) safety precautions and public education; (2) temporarily not accepting certain recyclables (such as those requiring handling by staff); (3) temporarily stopping all recycling (encouraging residents to hold or put into the trash); and (4) facility closure. 

The report reflected the following common early changes made by facilities: (1) increased sanitation; (2) buildings closed to public (ex. office, bathrooms); (3) flow of traffic reduced for social distancing; (4) swap shops closed; and (5) modifications to accepting money, including not charging for fee items.  Later changes reflected in the report included phased re-openings of recycling services. 

All of this information was shared in April in a popular free webinar "Best Management Practices for Recycling Facilities During COVID-19."  The webinar featured Dr. Ben Locwin, an expert in infectious diseases epidemiology, and included specific examples of how communities were altering their operations to continue safely recycling during the pandemic.  The webinar was attended by over 300 people live, and more than 250 have watched the free recording on NRRA's website.   

Are these adaptations evolving to be carried on beyond the pandemic?

Yes, many of these changes implemented by facilities will continue because (1) we don’t know how long the pandemic will last; (2) it’s hard work to retrain residents once you’ve implemented a change; and (3) these changes will increase safety for operators and residents from other illnesses.  For example, communities that took the time and expense of changing their systems for collecting money to accept electronic payment are not likely to reverse those changes.  

In what ways has the pandemic impacted recycling markets, and do we understand the long-term results of these impacts?

The pandemic led to a dramatic shift of trash and recycling from schools and businesses to homes.  As a result, municipalities are seeing far more tonnage of trash and recycling than typical for this time of year.  

Cardboard supply in the beginning of the pandemic dropped because businesses are steady suppliers for companies that buy this material, and that supply dropped as businesses closed.  As a result, the price for cardboard rose in April and May, then later dropped after anyone holding material flooded the market to receive the higher pricing.  This under supply of cardboard was significant enough that the Environmental Protection Agency made a video about the importance of residential recycling for packaging and product manufacturers.  In addition, consider that cardboard is especially in high demand as home delivery of internet purchases increased during the pandemic.  

Only one NRRA vendor, one that recycles #1-7 plastics, had to fully stop operations during the pandemic because the state in which it was located did not deem plastic recycling to be an essential business.  All other NRRA vendors were able to keep operating, though some with slight disruptions.  For example, an NRRA vendor that purchases #1 PET plastic and #2 HDPE plastic recently had high inventory and not enough staff, so they stopped accepting #1 PET plastic temporarily.  

Another notable recycling market change is that demand for high grade writing paper has declined due to loss of office and school activity.  The price for sorted office paper has dropped recently as mills that used this material began creating tissue products, which require less fiber. 

It's hard to say what the long-term impacts on the recycling markets will be from the pandemic.  We've simply never gone through this type of situation before.