Lockdown leaves UK waste collectors feeling the pinch

To understand what lockdown life has meant for the UK economy, consider looking inside a rubbish bin.

Stockpiling at the beginning of the lockdown led to a 70 per cent surge in cans and tins in mid-April, according to data collected by Suez, the waste management company. The measures have also resulted in an increase in glass waste produced by households as more beer and wine is consumed at home, and a sharp decline in used office photocopy paper because of closed offices.

“The binmen truly are the barometer of the economy,” said John Scanlon, chief executive of Suez UK, which handles about a fifth of all the UK’s waste.

The volume of waste produced in the UK has plummeted during the coronavirus lockdown — a trend that may have environmental benefits, but is devastating for many waste collection businesses.

Residents in Northampton applaud refuse collectors at the end of March as they and other key workers continued to work through the Covid-19 crisis © David Rogers/Getty Images

Although households have been producing about 20 per cent more rubbish than usual over the period because people are at home, the level of commercial waste has dropped by around 50 per cent because of closed businesses, said Mr Scanlon, echoing similar figures from other companies.

“Depending on our volumes, we can very quickly have a view on what is going on with the economy,” he said, adding that there has not yet been a jump in waste collection that would point to a quick recovery.

“As consumer confidence changes, people decide to spend or not spend, and that has an impact on what ends up in the back of your trucks every week,” he said.

The contents of the average household recycling bin have changed greatly during lockdown, according to recycling companies and waste collectors.

According to some, recycling has become tidier and less contaminated, while others have noticed a trend of people cleaning out their houses and throwing our more rubbish as a result. 

Although household waste has increased by 20 per cent since March the level of commercial waste has dropped by around 50 per cent because of closed businesses © Paul Quayle/Alamy

“I think overall we have been a bit more successful at recycling,” said Richard Kirkman, chief technology officer of Veolia UK, the environmental services company. “It looks like it’s getting better in terms how good people are at doing recycling . . . and we are able to recover more recycling than we were before.”

He said demand for paper products made from recycled material — such as tissue paper or toilet paper that contains recycled paper fibres — had grown during lockdown, helping the market for paper scrap. Meanwhile waste glass from households was up about 10 per cent compared with normal, he added.

Waste glass from households was up about 10 per cent compared with normal, according to Veolia U © Charlie Bibby/FT

Other companies noted an increase in plastic waste, as households threw out more drinks containers, milk jugs, and hand sanitiser bottles.

“We are getting much cleaner materials, because people are spending much more time with their waste, and they are realising that, ‘Oh, maybe nappies aren’t recyclable’,” said Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management. 

But he added that the cleaner material does not make up for the overall drop in the volume of waste produced by the locked-down economy. “It is good for the environment I suppose, but not so good if we are expecting a recovery,” he said.

Commercial waste collectors have been the hardest hit by the drop, as many offices, restaurants and hotels remain shuttered or are operating at only a fraction of their usual pace.

“We are definitely not expecting it to return to normal this year. It looks like there will be a permanent drop off, so it is a question of how we adjust to that,” said Jacob Hayler, executive director the Environmental Services Association, a business group representing the waste industry.

“What I’m hearing from our members on the commercial side is, ‘Where has all the rubbish gone?’,” he said. “They are still way down on volumes, and still really hoping that it comes back as soon as possible.”

BPR Group, a waste company working in the City of London, said it has seen its collections there drop by 90 per cent, and has put 85 per cent of its staff on furlough.

“The impact has been dramatic and startling,” said Bill Swan, BPR’s managing director. “Our customers are concentrated in those areas that are particularly hard hit.” 

The decline in office paper has also contributed to a surge in the price for recycled paper fibre that is used as feedstock in mills.

The lockdown has resulted in a surge in online shopping resulting in far more cardboard recycling than usual © Rick Findler/Shutterstock

DS Smith, the cardboard packaging company which operates the largest paper mill in the UK, said the demand for recycled cardboard packaging has been strong — partly because of the number of packed home deliveries from increased online shopping during lockdown.

The UK government is aiming to increase recycling rates to 65 per cent of municipal waste by 2035, up from 45 per cent today. However, there are fears the looming economic downturn could undermine that goal, with some companies pointing out that increased recycling from households does not make up for the decline in office waste.

The recession will make businesses and consumers alike less willing to pay for more sustainable waste management, such as collecting more types of recycling, predicted Mr Swan of BPR.

“If it is more sustainable but costs 10 per cent more, we are expecting that people will be much less receptive to that message than they would have been prior [to the coronavirus crisis],” he said.

“When people are hit so hard economically their willingness to pay for what really matters tends to diminish.”

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