COVID-19 and Waste: A summary

COVID-19 & Waste

On 28th April 2020, the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) held a webinar with 50 participants to discuss COVID-19; and how the waste sector has been impacted and adapted to the challenge.  Present at the webinar were MPs, peers and representatives from the waste and resources, packaging sectors, and a large number of local authorities.

Summary of previous research:

With the UK remaining firmly in lockdown, there have been significant changes to the composition of our waste arisings, and added pressure to the waste and resources sector. Initially over 90% of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) temporarily closed, and a large proportion of councils suspending bulky item (50% of councils) and garden waste (30% of councils) collections. The Government however prioritised recycling and residual waste collection, and around 90% and 100% respectively of collections have been maintained throughout. Policy Connect wrote about the impact on waste services earlier in the crisis, available here.

Key points:

  • From an ordinary household perspective, the adapted waste services seem to be working smoothly with the recognised key sector status, although it is another story behind the scenes.
  • Whilst household services are holding up well, the commercial side is struggling with volumes down 50% as business and industries remain closed. Services are continuing even at a loss, to ensure essential supply chains including hospitals and supermarkets are not affected.
  • The closure of Household Waste and Recycling Centres (HWRCs) continues to be the most contentious aspect.
  • Collaboration across the sector and with government and other organisations has enabled most services to be maintained.
  • The level of services is generally starting to improve week on week.
  • Conversations are turning to the future, and getting back onto the net-zero challenge.


Fleur Anderson MP:

This crisis provides us with an opportunity to think differently, hopefully with a renewed environmental perspective. In the film Contagion, the first thing to go is waste collection. The fact we have such good collections continuing is a testament to our council services. How we think differently afterward is now key.

Natalie Elphicke MP:

There must be a strong concerted effort to get HWRCs open. Recycling is important and HWRCs are part of this. Having them closed is detrimental to behavioural acceptance of recycling. There has consequently been increased fly tipping and burning, and confusion about environmental detriment of this. There is also a household equity issues, as not everyone has the ability to store waste long term. Elements sound like a response to pressures on industry rather than needs of residents. We have a fair expectation that HWRCs are opened fully, quickly, and safely.

Barry Sheerman MP:

In future we’ll be looking at things in terms of before and after the virus. Everything we do will be approached differently off the back of the lessons learnt, and I hope we will continue to look through a sustainability lens.

Jacob Hayler, ESA

Household services have held up well; the less visible side is commercial, which is struggling. Volumes are down around 50% as customers have closed. Services are therefore running at loss, and with workers furloughed. Commercial waste is still an essential service, so can’t shut down, as hospitals, GPs, supermarkets etc. mustn’t be impacted. Overall the picture is a lot better than planned, with 10% of staff off during the peak and improving, compared to worst case assumption of 50% off. Four priority areas:

  1. Being recognised as an essential service to keep supplies and operations going.
  2. Health and safety of workforce critical. Sector specific guidance was key to reassuring the workforce.
  3. Flexibility on permitting and planning, where it has not been possible to meet new safety guidance whilst meeting permitting conditions: things like physical signatures on transfer notes, and levels of monitoring and storage. As long as safety is protected, we are working with regulators to keep operations running.
  4. Relief from performance related penalties. Where things are out of our control such as monitoring requirements, we are hoping the sector won’t be punished for continuing operations.

What next: maintaining behaviour on recycling, and get back to main focuses: RWS targets, and net-zero.

Steve Read, ADEPT

ADEPT/NAWDO/LARAC are conducting a weekly local authority survey, with data over the last month from 250 councils. These have shown:

  • A consistent and gradually improving picture in terms of staff availability and services provided.
  • 90%+ no disruption on collection.
  • Only minor disruption in the rest.
  • It is the bulky collections, street sweeping and garden waste that have been turned off when necessary although many are still continuing.
  • Household waste volumes up, around 11-12% more.
  • Disposal side operating normally: 2% said they couldn’t access landfill, 1% EfW. MRFs normal in 82% cases, 2% unavailable.
  • HWRCs show 98% closed, and this number has increased over the last month. The view is that trips there are not essential when we have kerbside collections for hygiene reasons.
  • Anecdotally there is little kickback on this in West Sussex, with most people understanding, and not massively more recycling.

Dr Toni Gladding, WISH Forum

  • Initially contacted by Defra and other bodies looking for guidance around health and protection,
  • Collaboratively produced guidelines to implement restrictions and PHE guidance, on social distancing, PPE, waste handling etc.
  • The first document was produced in 48 hours, with 60 industry responses, and is updated weekly. This has been well received by industry and LA risk.
  • Didn’t recommend HWRCs close, this was down to local authorities. Latest guidance says if they are opening, do so in a phased fashion.
  • Aware that there are more incidents of aggression to waste collectors as more waste is produced and bins are overflowing.

Patrick Mahon, WRAP

Waste collections

Cross-industry collaboration through CIWM to address variations of different sources of waste and staffing issues, whilst commercial waste demand has reduced. Also bringing together councils who need support maintaining household services and C&I spare capacity.

Food waste and redistribution

Two issues: a lot more vulnerable people need help in getting food; elderly, vulnerable etc. At the same time, there is a lot of surplus to be food redistributed, including perishable food from hospitality sectors. Connecting up these chains with financial support from Defra; £3.75m emergency food grant to implement logistics; vans, fridges etc. Also providing guidance on date labelling to avoid excess waste.

Helping households

Helping with the understanding of how to deal with the situation, through provision of two main resources: RecycleNow and LoveFoodHateWaste.


  • Decision to close HWRCs wasn’t taken lightly. There was a sunny weekend where sites were overcrowded.
  • Everyone would like to see them reopened safely. It’s going to be local authority decisions on how, thinking about the practicalities, and limited range of services. Work is underway, and will involve restrictions on opening and materials.
  • Aim to provide service when safe, but balance with impacts on people’s behaviour, and be mindful of staff. Some experiences that people don’t take kindly into queueing. The law abiding will get this but not ideal to completely open sites for everything straight away and maintain safety.
  • Anecdotally one local authority kept HWRCs open, whilst police sat at gates and issues tickets.


  • Defra has done a great job at coordinating councils and industry, and introducing flexibility.

Environmental concerns and the future

  • The biggest carbon impact is opening of buildings and travel. Both have been drastically reduced, so it is a positive experiment going forward, when thinking about recovery and reform.
  • Net-zero recognition predates this. The sector has a good record on emissions, reduced by 70% since 1990; mainly through landfill diversion. Must now play part and go further in full decarbonisation.
  • Plan for next 10 years and beyond to decarbonise fleets, operations, EfW, diesel powered machinery. How to work with other sectors e.g. battery tech. Conversations already happening