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Recyclers tackle Covid-19 supply chain disruption

The coronavirus pandemic has affected ‘hidden’ supply chains, which, in turn, presents new challenges for the recycling industry, according to Adam Minter. The author of Junkyard Planet aired his views during a Bloomberg talk on how the waste management world is responding to Covid-19.

It may not be generally realised but all brands of tissue and toilet paper contain a significant portion of recycled fibre content. In the US, manufacturers add recycled fibre to at least 25% of their products. ‘It just so happens that office printing paper is an important ingredient in toilet paper manufacture,’ Minter notes. ‘You can guess what happened when offices shut down during the pandemic.’ Clean office printing paper was no longer being generated at scale.

Adam Minter

To make up for this lack of material, the focus shifted to collecting mail instead. Generally, it is a pretty clean fibre but a big portion is junk mail, which is heavily dyed and printed on lower quality paper. ‘Transforming this material into a fibre that is good enough be included in tissue and toilet paper production takes extra steps,’ Minter points out. ‘This became a choke point for recyclers when consumers started panic buying toilet paper.’

At the peak, demand for toilet paper in the US was said to have surged 845% and revenue in this sector should reach US$ 13.5 million by the end of the year. The sector is projected to see 2% growth annually during the next five years.

The same shift in the supply chain can be observed in the cardboard sector. Traditionally, most corrugated board comes from restaurants and supermarkets. ‘As we know, the pandemic sparked an enormous surge in online shopping; this became the biggest source of recovered cardboard. But it won’t surprise anyone to hear that professional establishments like grocery stores will go to great lengths to keep their cardboard clean – unlike consumers like you and me.’

Shops get a financial incentive to sort and prepare the cardboard and they benefit from well-organised collection services that provide regular pick-ups. Recyclers receive this clean material neatly baled or stacked. Fast-forward to the present when most recovered cardboard originates in residential neighbourhoods.

‘We’re talking mouldy, damp, crumbled up boxes covered with pizza stains,’ Minter says. ‘The quality of the input delivered to recyclers has really taken a hit. In short, the corona-age is a very time-consuming and expensive period for paper mills.’

He also notes issues with aluminium. ‘With lockdowns in place, consumers weren’t visiting bars and diners anymore. Again, canned foods and beverages were being hoarded and stored at home.’

At the same time, collection points closed their doors so consumers had nowhere to take all the empty cans. This created a shortage of aluminium, and the sector was stuck in limbo for weeks. ‘Can manufacturers were scrambling to find new sources to supply the production process,’ Minter says.

Disposable masks lying around public areas have also become a common sight. ‘That we encounter so many stray items proves that the existing recycling infrastructure isn’t good enough,’ he insists. ‘There aren’t enough waste bins, collection schemes haven’t been optimised and recycling facilities need to be updated. This is especially true in developing countries.’

More by Adam Minter >> Africa’s e-scrap story: a new narrative

Masks tossed away without a second thought is ‘just the latest chapter in our waste story,’ Minter laments. ‘It makes me think about plastic straws littered on the beach or plastic shopping bags left around the city. We’ve become obsessed with cutting back on these products in recent years even though they don’t make up a big percentage of the global waste stream.’

In this case, however, there is the added risk of spreading infection. ‘I recall that at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of recyclers were concerned for the wellbeing of their staff. After all, they could get sick due to surface transmission if they weren’t careful. It’s estimated that over a thousand workers contracted Covid-19 this way in the US alone.’

This number could surge now that more US citizens are taking coronavirus tests at home. ‘As a result, we suddenly have medical, potentially infectious, waste being generated outside of the hospital. And it’s going into the regular household waste bin,’ Minter says. ‘This is an unprecedented situation.’

And he concludes: ‘In my opinion, the government and local authorities aren’t doing enough to reward US recycling plant workers and waste collectors for their hard work. They deserve to get hazard pay for as long as this pandemic lasts.’

Read our review of Minter’s book ‘Secondhand’ here >>

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