Health and safety at heart of decision to put recycling on hold

8 April 2020

Tens of thousands of beverage bottles that have touched people’s mouths isn’t what the average person would want to be handling during a life-threatening pandemic.

Glass collection trucks are designed for glass to be manually sorted into different colours at the kerbside.

Glass has to be manually sorted.

It is evident by how fast Covid-19 has spread around the world that the virus is extremely contagious, and studies suggest it could survive on surfaces for hours or even days.

Wellington City Council has put its recycling collection on hold during the Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown, with Waste Operations Manager Emily Taylor-Hall saying the health and safety of staff was at the heart of this decision.

Emily says there were additional concerns when it came to kerbside glass collection.

“Our glass collection trucks are designed for glass to be manually sorted into different colours at the kerbside. There is the issue around the safety of workers and their potential exposure to the virus. There has been a real concern around glass because typically the bulk of what goes into glass recycling is beverage bottles that have come into contact with people’s lips and saliva.”

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She says even if putting glass recycling into the landfill was an option, it was not physically possible due to the design of the trucks and glass receptacles, and the machinery available on site.

While many people are only putting their rubbish out for collection, there still appear to be some residents who haven’t got the message that recycling has been postponed.

Emily says some people have left glass-recycling crates and wheelie bins out on kerbsides, and she asks these residents to please take them back to their properties to minimise hazards on the street. 

Recycling collections are on hold during the lockdown.

She was also aware that people had been “panic buying” Council rubbish bags, but ensures residents there is no shortage in supply.

Wellington City’s kerbside recycling collection is carried out by a contractor, and the sorting of the items is conducted under a separate contract. Emily says neither contractor wanted to put its staff at risk, and the facility where recycling was sorted had shut down its operation as a result.

“The main reason was that in that particular facility, there are lots of workers who wouldn’t have been able to keep the two metre rule of physical distancing. There are also questions around how long the virus lasts on surfaces like cardboard and plastic. And while the sorting plant is semi-automated, it still has a reasonable amount of hand sorting.”

Keeping essential services, including rubbish collection, running smoothly during the lockdown has been Council’s priority. Emily says another motivation for halting the recycling collection was to ring-fence a group of drivers who would be able to tag in to help with rubbish collection if needed.

Recycling collections are on hold during the lockdown.

“It was about making sure we had a group of essential workers isolated early on so they could be back-up if and when the rubbish truck drivers begin to reduce in their availability.”

Emily says people should be aware that Council does not have the capacity to recycle during lockdown.

“Our main essential service is to make sure rubbish gets picked up and is taken to the landfill. And that’s where having a really good relationship with the contractor has come into its strength. 

"We’re making sure they’ve got a plan and we are having conversations about when they might need to add additional capacity to their fleet to make sure the city is ticking over. ”

People can stockpile their recycling for future processing, but they must make sure items are very clean – especially if it has contained food. Council recommends milk bottles and any items that are not clean be put in with rubbish.