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Recycling in Today's Economy

Rhiannon Gardner is a social media and outreach volunteer with REDO. She’s been working as a recycling specialist with SLCC for the past year, recently took a job with Green Fiber as their recycling coordinator, and is working on completing a Master Recycler certification course offered by Salt Lake City. In this blog, she explores the impact that COVID-19 and the economic downturn has had on recycling and waste issues.

A glove found by a curb outside of a shopping center in West Jordan, UT.

So much has happened over the last few months that I feel like time has been moving much slower than usual. We have all been trying to adapt to a new normal, and it seems like everyday something else comes up to shake our reality again. There has been so much information thrown at us that it has created a whole new cycle of stress. I’ve been sifting through endless information and trying to decide what to make of it all. As it turns out, it has been no different in the waste and recycling world. 

To start, recycling plants have been hit hard like most jobs with Covid-19. Depending on the plant’s location and what state it is in (some states have been hit harder with Covid-19 and are in lockdown), some plants have stayed open with almost no effect while others have completely shut down. Those that have sorters in close proximity to one another have decided for safety reasons to shut down production.  Utah, unlike some states, has not seen as much change. At Salt Lake Community College, our recycling team has experienced shorter hours due to the college implementing safe practices like social distancing. Otherwise, it has just been slow with not as much recycling to sort. Places like Momentum glass recycling, Interwest Paper, and others have remained in production even during the stay-at-home order. While these places still remain in production, some have had to adapt to the changing times to keep up with demand due to the stay-at-home order. Momentum has increased their residential glass intake during quarantine (although they are nowhere near capacity). Many businesses have also had to adjust their employees on-site to keep them safe or have those who normally work from an office switch to working from home as much as possible. 

In an article posted by Waste 360, they state that during this pandemic, recycling is deemed essential, and that is a big deal considering that in the 2008 recession recycling was one of the first things to be cut. “Our role is deemed essential not just because we are protecting public health through proper and timely discard management. Recycling is now critical to the health of our economy—an essential part of the supply chain. Businesses depend on us every day to supply the feedstock to make new products (yes, including more toilet paper).” This shows that not only is recycling growing into an important aspect of everyday life, but it is also paving a way for future opportunities in the industry. Although, in spite of our being essential during this time of crisis, recycling has had its challenges and has been hit pretty hard.

In response to the pandemic, some positive aspects have been that plastic has been upcycled into face shields for nurses and doctors. On April 21st, Waste.Ed posted a video on how plastic trash was being upcycled into face shields to help keep our healthcare workers safe in Uganda. With the shortage in money for protective equipment, a local recycling company called Takataka Plastics stepped in and helped make protective equipment for a cheaper price while reusing plastic waste. A British plastic company has also pitched in and started making face shields as well from used plastic. While we have not been in need of face shields here in Utah, a growing non-profit called Clever Octopus has been giving the community many opportunities to stay busy and get creative with their reclaimed art supplies. They have set up an “Octo-box” outside their store to give out free kits to those who want to explore their creative side.

Unfortunately, there are also some negative impacts that have occurred in the recycling industry as well. One of the biggest issues I’ve personally seen is glove and mask waste. Gloves and masks are not recyclable and should be thrown away into the trash, or else they could contaminate a whole bin of recycling. The virus can survive on cardboard and copper surfaces for hours, and on glass and plastic surfaces for days. This puts recycling workers at a higher risk of contracting the virus when bins are being sorted at colleges or on sorting lines at recycling plants. 

There are also more of these items being found on the ground and are now being seen littered on our beaches. CNN stated that the plastic problem is at an all-time high due to the use of personal protective equipment during this pandemic.  With public health taking priority all over the globe, single-use plastics, latex gloves, and face masks are ending up in our waterways and oceans. These items  are not even making it into waste bins for proper disposal, but are ending up in streets, parking lots and ditches. Our plastic pollution was already an uphill battle, but with the world in immediate crisis mode, single-use protective equipment is putting even more pollution in our waterways.

Overall, businesses in the recycling industry are keeping their heads above water during these uncertain and changing times. I am seeing more opportunities to get involved with recycling as it is becoming a growing necessity for our future. While we have taken the first big step by becoming essential, there is still a long road ahead against single-use materials and their convenience. I am hoping that with all of us staying at home, we are able to see the importance of reducing our consumption, picking up after ourselves, and working together to reach a zero-waste future for a healthier earth. 

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Thanks !

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