Measures imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 are affecting organics recycling, with small-scale community efforts hit particularly hard. City and state governments are also shifting their approach to organics collection, implementing safety measures and in some cases scaling back or suspending programs.
In areas where food scrap recycling access was somewhat limited to begin with, the fallout is already taking a toll. Lynne Serpe, who runs the New Orleans-based Compost NOW, told Waste Dive she typically collects 4,000 pounds of food scraps on a weekly basis. Those volumes have decreased to 1,200 pounds.
The situation could become increasingly untenable as municipalities escalate clampdown policies aimed at protecting public health. "We will keep things going for as long as we can," Serpe said.
Those trends come as the pandemic's impacts on the waste sector have differed somewhat across the country. While trash collection is largely considered a public health necessity, some areas are suspending their recycling programs amid worker safety concerns and economic realities. Organics recycling, which is still far from widespread, is also facing tense times.
In New Orleans, Serpe said her operation largely relies on universities and libraries. In an effort to reduce emissions from miles traveled, the program usually hosts 11 drop-off sites around the city during most days of the week. But measures associated with the pandemic have drastically changed that. "Last week, I hosted collection at my house," she said.
Small-scale composting can rely on volunteer labor that often skews older. With that demographic among the most vulnerable to the virus, many are now staying home, leaving such efforts without labor on hand. That decline has hit Serpe's program, along with a "stay-at-home" directive in place across New Orleans. But Serpe said she is working to adapt and keep her project alive through a combination of measures, including scaling down operations. She has also asked some local farms to allow residents to directly drop off scraps, while seeking other ways to offer multiple collection sites.
"We're also making sure in all of our messaging... not to encourage people to make a special trip just for this," Serpe said, emphasizing residents should drop off food scraps "if you're out on an essential run" for groceries or similar necessities. People are also being asked to stand six feet apart when they do come, in keeping with social distancing recommendations, while additional efforts to wipe down bins have been implemented.
Another key factor in Serpe's push are local partners including Schmelly's Dirt Farm, an organics hauler and delivery team. The company offers commercial pickup in addition to partnering with residential food scrap drop-off programs. Serpe said Compost NOW's relationship with the hauler has historically allowed for more operational flexibility, as well as increased tonnage compared to what might otherwise be feasible. That partnership is proving especially helpful now, easing the burden of transporting material to local farms.
Susan Sakash, operations manager for Schmelly's, told Waste Dive via email the company was experiencing an uptick in business and was unable to comment further by publishing time.
In other parts of the country, organics programs are similarly struggling to adapt. In North Carolina, the organization Compost Now — different from the New Orleans group — appeared to be continuing operations as of this week. While Compost Now did not respond to a request for comment from Waste Dive, staff advised on the organization's Facebook page that they are using additional safety measures, including repeated hand sanitizing and wiping down of bins, to ensure public health.
Bootstrap Compost, based in Massachusetts, told customers the small company had made the "difficult decision" to temporarily shut down March 16, with hopes of resuming service in future weeks. The operation asked customers to consider continuing payments if able to support staff, but also offered refunds and other flexible payment options. Andy Brooks, Bootstrap's founder, told Waste Dive that while his business has been deemed "essential" due to its role in waste management, concerns about staff and public safety trumped business.
"I hope we can resume shortly after this thing peaks," Brooks said. A resumption would involve "a modified approach to pickups and warehouse work," including expanding service days, reducing onsite staff numbers, spacing out work stations and conducting training for drivers, he said.
ScrapDogs Community Compost, based in Maine, also opted to suspend drop-off and residential pickup services. "We understand that this will pose a significant inconvenience to many of you. We'll be posting some ideas for handling your food waste in the interim later today," the group wrote in a March 17 Facebook post, noting ScrapDogs hopes to resume service by the week of April 12.
Some cities are also choosing to suspend various organics collection options. The City of Klamath Falls, Oregon announced a pickup suspension earlier this week, while both Alexandria, Virginia and Gaithersburg, Maryland suspended their drop-off programs.
In Greenwich, Connecticut, a food scrap program scheduled to begin in April has been delayed by the outbreak.
Programs run by and in some large cities are having more luck. Salt Lake City, Utah has assured residents its program is continuing for the time being. And Belinda Mager, a spokesperson with New York's Department of Sanitation, told Waste Dive the city "will continue to provide our most essential services," including curbside organics collection.
"We’ve seen a small increase in tonnage over the past couple weeks," Mager said.
The city has suspended some services to protect workers and the public, including compost give-back events and food scrap drop-off sites, she said.
Robert Reed, spokesperson for Recology's San Francisco operations, similarly told Waste Dive collection services in the city have been deemed essential to public health and safety. San Francisco was among the first U.S. cities to impose a "shelter-in-place" order, but Reed said city residents depend on waste collection to retain a sense of normalcy.
"We continue to collect and process: trash, recycling and compostable materials including yard trimmings (sticks and leaves) and food scraps," Reed wrote via email.
However, Recology is still taking precautionary measures. Recology managers ordered personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, "weeks ago" and have added "more than 30 additional hand-washing stations in dispatch offices, break rooms and other areas frequented by employees."
While city-wide programs function differently from smaller-scale operations, some companies are taking their lead from government officials. Several Philadelphia organics recyclers said earlier this month that their services would continue in step with municipal trash service pickup policies. And Washington, D.C.-based Compost Cab told customers in a March 26 email the company has been "designated as an essential business" by the mayor. (The author of this piece is a Compost Cab user.)
Those differing approaches indicate effects to composting could largely come down to decisions made at the state and local level. The New Jersey chapter of the U.S. Composting Council, for example, told members in a March 23 email that despite Gov. Phil Murphy's "stay-at-home" order, composting at both municipal exempt facilities and Class C licensed areas is still permitted, along with composting at farms.
But for small companies, the long-term effects of the pandemic may still be dire and their operators are largely dependent on community residents. Serpe of Compost NOW expressed hope that people will continue to prioritize practices like organics recycling, sustainability and recovering items from the waste stream even as they respond to a crisis.
"In many ways, these things are just as important now," she said. "It's important for people to continue to think about these issues."