Perhaps driven by an urge to redecorate or clean out garages during the pandemic, household hazardous waste (HHW) generation has boomed and collection sites are feeling the surge.
“I'd like to say that since everybody was working from home and working on home improvement projects, we would have thought of that, but we didn't,” said Bob Cappadona, COO of environmental solutions and services at Veolia North America. The company now sees 400 to 600 attendees at events where it anticipated 200 or less, or a few thousand participants during weekend-long collections.
Other companies and HHW collection groups have noticed similar trends, but the large piles of electronics and antifreeze sometimes stand at odds with processing capacity. Efforts to reduce person-to-person contact, or operate within smaller budgets, means local governments have scaled back collection events. The changes, combined with the surge of HHW materials from residents, may reverberate throughout some programs past the end of the pandemic.
For some communities, collection protocols revamped for the COVID-19 era have brought mostly positive change. This was the experience for HazWaste Central, which collects HHW from 17 Connecticut towns through the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.
The organization had been trying for two years to get residents to sign up for HHW drop-offs online, but the protocol hadn’t taken off, said Lori Vitagliano, government and public relations specialist at the authority. When the pandemic began, HazWaste Central pushed its first collection date back a week and communicated to residents that online sign-up was required as a way to reduce contact.
Now that locals have to list what they’re bringing in advance, Vitagliano said HazWaste employees have a more accurate sense of the volumes and kinds of materials they would collect. That information helped the third-party contractor – the company responsible for sorting, packaging and transporting the waste – show up with proper staffing and supplies. Advanced sign-ups also gave Vitagliano the opportunity to call people when they listed items HazWaste doesn’t collect, like 20-pound propane tanks, and direct them to other disposal options in the area.
“The transition to a new way of doing things has gone very well, and it’s something we certainly plan to carry forward,” Vitagliano said.
As one of the companies a municipality might hire to take care of HHW, Veolia has had a slightly different experience these past several months. The company was gearing up for the spring — it’s first busy season of the year — when the pandemic hit. Municipalities, like those in areas where the virus first hit hard, started canceling or pushing back collection events. New York City, for example, suspended funding for SAFE Disposal events for the current fiscal year year, extending through June 2021.
“We were all struggling on even how to go to the supermarket, no less how were we to do an HHW event,” Cappadona said.
Some of those anticipated collection events have returned, albeit with a modified program. In areas where Veolia accepts waste on a regular basis, locals now make appointments for a given drop-off time. Municipalities that host less frequent collections — like those who only hire Veolia for one day a year — require people to load their trunks with items for staff to retrieve, a shift that has streamlined the collection process, Cappadona said. With some customers looking for less expensive programs that fit restricted budgets, Veolia now runs some scaled-down collection events where it accepts fewer drop-offs or declines items that can be processed elsewhere – like household paints and oils.
Municipalities sometimes schedule and promote HHW drop-off events a year beforehand, so moving or changing the format of a collection weekend within weeks or months is relatively last minute. And even now, Veolia has what Cappadona calls an “inconsistent flow” of materials as virus cases rise in different parts of the country and local plans change.
Richard Lobinske, an independent HHW consultant, knows of several other processors dealing with similar shifts.
“For several months there, at least, and probably still now, things are kind of wildly bouncing around," he said. Lobinske was still with the Hazardous Waste Center in Leon County, Florida, when the pandemic began. Now, as treasurer of the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association, he's heard how a range of HHW facilities have dealt with new working conditions.
Like many HHW facilities, the Leon County center closed temporarily, which gave employees a chance to reorganize heavy equipment in a way they normally can’t when open to the public, Lobinske said. Many other HHW facilities also took advantage of the time to revamp operating procedures.
Despite these improvements, many HHW centers had to contend with other logistical restrictions. Personal protective equipment (PPE) started to become more scarce, as medical personnel suddenly needed the Tyvek suits and protective glasses that HHW employees use every day. When residents dropped off high volumes of materials, the Leon County facility had to reconfigure the supplies it had on hand to accommodate. Unexpectedly, a lot of products with hydrochloric acid — a common ingredient in tile cleaners and pool treatments — showed up. Since the corrosive liquid can’t be shipped in steel drums, the facility had to stock up on plastic containers to meet demand.
“When those numbers change and when you bought expecting a certain amount, it can throw you off,” Lobinske said. “I can see those effects cascading throughout the processing chain to final destinations for the material.”
Restricted budgets might also create longer-term difficulties for some HHW programs. Some municipalities and companies started cutting costs by paring certification programs back to the minimum. U.S. OSHA hazardous waste certification and renewals are required, for example, but employers might skip out on programs that are optional in their state such as training on how to identify unknown materials. Hiring freezes might also shrink available staff if people leave positions, and Lobinske anticipates some facilities might have to work with fewer people or operate shorter hours.
Lobinske generally expects municipal programs to have an easier time providing HHW collection services through the pandemic than private businesses. But even those companies feeling a shake-up can adapt.
Overall, the HHW division's income at Veolia has stayed comparable to last year, Cappadona said. The division recently started offering building decontamination services with its HHW team as one way to adapt. “Before March, that certainly wouldn't have been something our people would have been involved in," he said.
As service providers work to manage the long-term consequences of the pandemic they also still have to address immediate concerns that persist more than seven months in. Employees still want to know which masks they should be wearing while interacting with colleagues and customers, Lobinske said, as well as what interaction protocols pose the lowest risk. Protocols for how to deal with hazardous chemicals might feel second nature, but coping with COVID-19 is not.
“That’s what’s throwing them off,” Lobinske said. “There's a lot of unknowns, and people aren't happy when there's unknowns.”