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Sanitation Workers Face Increased Demand For Trash Removal, Greater Risk Of Exposure To COVID-19

A garbage man holds on to the back of a truck driving up the road.

If this year is your first working from home, you likely see activity in your neighborhood that you probably just took for granted. Like sanitation workers emptying garbage and recycling bins.

Now imagine the mess you might see out your window if those trucks didn’t make their regular pickups. Because amid the pandemic, North Texans have increased their waste disposal significantly – waste that if not handled properly could increase the spread of the coronavirus.

“Safe trash handling is essential to the public health and safety of any community,” said Sunanda Katragadda, Environmental Services Administrator for the City of Arlington.

City officials in Fort Worth, Arlington and Grapevine report the volume of household waste and recycling has increased about 10 percent. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s possible some of that waste could be infected with the virus – putting sanitation workers at risk.

“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes,” according to the CDC website. “This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about this virus.”

And in an era of constant hand sanitizing and surface wipedowns, people are gaining a new appreciation for the workers who pick up their garbage.

“Over the last six months we’ve seen a good amount of support, [like] people thanking the workers,” said Jason Roemer, Municipal Coordinator for Community Waste Disposal (CWD). “I think people are starting to see the process that it takes to remove waste and recycling.”

Roemer said CWD’s collection volume (which includes Colleyville, Keller, Allen, Azle and Prosper) increased 20 percent in April compared to last year. He attributed the waste increase to people staying home for longer hours, using more single-use products and engaging in yard work projects. He said no “on the job” CWD workers have tested positive for Covid-19.

Keeping Crews Safe

In the early stages of the pandemic, Roemer said there was uncertainty around the risks COVID-19 posed to sanitation workers, and that several waste management companies reduced pickups in the spring out of fear collection crews could contract coronavirus from regular contact with potentially contaminated materials.

“As a company we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on additional PPE, masks, gloves, sanitizer, and thousands more on third parties coming in and really cleaning the break rooms and things like that,” he said.

Arlington was one of the cities that reduced trash collections in the spring. Katragadda said in an e-mail that waste pickup resumed in April with a limited schedule.

“Due to some cases of positive tests to Republic Services’ personnel, we temporarily suspended all collections of brush and bulk items for a couple weeks,” Katragadda said. “We reinitiated collection of those materials in April, but collection only occurred once per week instead of the standard twice per week schedule.”

Republic Services, a collection company contracted with Arlington, Southlake and Grapevine, did not respond to interview requests.

Waste Management, a collection company contracted with the City of Fort Worth, protects employees through “Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and protocols,” according to WM senior public affairs manager Greta Calvery. She said when safety protocols are followed, working in trash collection is not more dangerous than it was before the pandemic.

“Based on OSHA guidelines, management of waste that is suspected or known to contain or be contaminated with COVID-19 does not require special precautions beyond those already used to protect workers from the hazards they encounter during their routine waste management job tasks,” Calvery said.

This includes requirements such as using PPE, sanitizing high-touch areas in facilities, and allowing call center employees to work remotely. Meanwhile, people should follow CDC and PHAC guidelines of disinfecting household items, she said.

The New Normal for Residents

Calvery and Roemer advised residents to always use plastic trash bags when disposing of household remnants to ensure household waste is contained and crews are less likely to come into contact with contaminants. The CDC recommends households have designated lined trash bins for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and the City of Keller’s COVID-19 information web page instructs residents to “sanitize trash and recycling cart handles before and after service.”

While the sanitation industry helps prevent the virus from spreading by limiting public exposure to contaminated waste, increased household waste has some environmental experts concerned about the pandemic’s long-term environmental impact.

In July, Jacob Duer – the president and CEO of Alliance to End Plastic Waste – wrote on the World Economic Forum’s website that plastic disposal rates have increased internationally, with hospitals in Wuhan, China producing 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the pandemic. His report included an estimate from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan that predicts the U.S. could generate “an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of COVID-19.”

Robert Smouse, assistant director of solid waste services for the City of Fort Worth, said citizens should consider finding ways to minimize their household waste footprint, helping preserve landfills and reduce the long-term environmental impact of the pandemic.

“In general, every day is a good day for citizens and businesses to strive towards minimizing their waste ... recycling acceptable materials and mulch [or] composting acceptable organic items,” Smouse said.