Overline: Pandemic
Headline: The Coronavirus Crisis and Waste Management in Germany

Waste collection continues during the coronavirus pandemic.
Waste collection continues during the coronavirus pandemic. Shutterstock/travelview

By Parul Kumar (IASS) and Christian Rasquin (Technical University of Freiberg)

The spread of the coronavirus has had rapid and far-reaching effects on the daily life of individuals and across professions and industries. The waste management sector is no exception here. This blog will highlight some of the challenges faced by the waste management sector in Germany. Similar to other European countries, the two most prominent measures taken by Germany to halt the spread of the coronavirus are the closing of its borders and the enforcement of reduced social contact.

Changing consumer behaviour

Measures aimed at reducing social contact, including the closure of restaurants, bars, cafes, and several offices, mean that many people are now working and cooking at home. Consumer behaviour has changed accordingly. One challenge that this brings is increased volumes of daily household waste. During the coronavirus crisis, consumers may prefer to purchase plastic-wrapped food as a further hygiene precaution. Since restaurants can only provide food in the form of take-away or delivery, greater packaging waste may be anticipated on account of this change. Thus the recent emphasis on waste avoidance has fallen by the wayside in the crisis. Indeed, there is an industry sentiment that single-use plastic and more food packaging is needed at this time, with sustainability concerns taking a back seat.

Additionally, there is likely to be a surge in demand for cleaning and hygiene products, which generally use plastic packaging. Apart from this, due to the closure of several stores, an increase in online purchases – for example, of products that facilitate recreational activities at home – may be expected, which entails further packaging waste. All of this points to a potential surge in the quantity of waste being generated by households, and underscores the need for a smoothly running waste management system.

Systemic Relevance

The collection of segregated waste from households, and its further utilization for circular economy streams or incineration is spread across a variety of actors. The waste management industry effectively encompasses a number of different services, including the generation of material (such as packaging) that ultimately ends up as waste with final consumers, waste collection, waste transportation, and waste treatment. The treatment of waste can be further divided into recycling and incineration.

There is a debate over which of these services constitute essential services. Such classification is significant, since it would entitle people working in the waste management sector to claim special privileges, such as access to childcare and school emergency care services, which are being made available only to those individuals who are engaged in “systemically relevant” professions.

Packaging industry

During the ongoing crisis, an association of plastic packaging manufacturers in Germany has advocated that this sector be recognized as systemically relevant infrastructure since plastic packaging is crucial for the supply of safe food, pharmaceuticals, and protective materials. European plastic packaging manufacturers’ associations have demanded that this status be granted to the industry across the European Union (EU).

Meanwhile, the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has declared the agriculture and food industry to be “systemically relevant infrastructure”, without explicitly specifying whether food packaging should be accorded the same status. It has been argued, however, that this status can be implicitly read into the scope of the agriculture and food industry. The European Commission has now urged EU countries to permit the transport of packaging materials for essential industries like food and pharmaceuticals via “green lanes”.

Waste disposal and collection

In an e-mail issued by the Interior Ministry to ITAD, an association of thermal waste treatment plants, waste disposal was acknowledged as a systemically relevant element of critical infrastructure, but the specific implications of this classification are to be determined by individual federal states. While some states have classified waste disposal services as systemically relevant, in other states the position is not as clear-cut. The exact scope of the term “waste disposal services” also leaves some room for debate, since this could be interpreted narrowly to mean the collection of waste, or more broadly to include aspects like waste recycling and incineration.

The Federal Association of the German Disposal, Water and Raw Materials Management (BDE) has appealed for the classification of all aspects of the waste management industry as “systemically relevant” infrastructure, across all German states, in order to make those employed in the waste management industry eligible for childcare and school emergency care services. The association is also calling for other measures such as greater worktime flexibility to cover for drivers who have fallen ill, digitization as a form of health protection for employees of waste disposal companies, and financial support for these companies to purchase protective and hygiene materials for their employees. The protection of employees working in this sector has a direct impact on supplies to waste streams. As it stands, some formalities in the waste collection process have been relaxed, such as the obligation to sign documents.

Waste segregation during the coronavirus crisis

The Federal Ministry of the Environment has asked households with individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus and suspected cases not to segregate their waste as per usual, and instead to dispose of all their waste via the residual waste collection stream. In addition, some municipalities have stopped the collection of certain waste streams due to a shortage of staff. Nevertheless, the general obligation to store and collect different waste streams separately still holds.

Recycling

The coronavirus crisis is having an impact on the recycling industry, with shortages being felt in the supply of waste material. For example, one report noted the impact of the crisis on Germany’s paper recycling industry due to reduced segregation of waste and a slowdown in the businesses of large companies like IKEA which normally generate considerable paper packaging waste. Plastic waste recyclers are also bracing themselves for uncertainty in the next few months, with some experts predicting that virgin plastic could increasingly be favoured over recycled plastic in the near future, owing to greater availability. Meanwhile, some municipal recycling depots, where local residents can bring certain waste materials, have closed or limited their service for consumers, which is also expected to lead to a disruption in certain waste cycles.

The BDE has highlighted the importance of waste segregation for providing raw materials to manufacturing industries, in particular the glass and paper industries, which rely on recycled materials. A general shutdown of waste collection and separation would significantly hamper production in these sectors. As the president of the association stated: “To put it bluntly, with the paper collection we are also ensuring the production of the toilet paper that is currently so popular.”

Cross-border transport of waste

The closing of borders has also affected international trade in waste material. In order to make it easier for waste to cross borders, the European Commission has advised member states to allow waste to be transported in the “green lanes”, and to use electronic procedures instead of the usual paper-based procedures. Electronic exchange of documents and information will minimise physical contact in the process of getting the required clearances and facilitate the shipment of waste within the EU to ensure quick disposal and a steady supply of secondary raw materials.

Conclusion

One of the key issues that has emerged in the coronavirus crisis is whether, and the extent to which, various actors involved in waste management are “systemically relevant”, a status that could make them eligible for certain benefits. It is crucial at this stage to clarify which parts of the sector constitute essential services and what concrete steps need to be taken to protect the health of those employed there. In this context, policymakers need to consider whether waste disposal, which is essential for maintaining public order and hygiene, stands on the same footing as other commercial activities in the larger waste management cycle, such as waste incineration and waste recycling. The classification as systemically relevant could be subject to change, depending on the duration of the coronavirus-related restrictions.

In the waste management sector at least, the crisis is a setback for sustainability. Ongoing efforts to circularize the economy through more re-use and recycling are likely to be hampered by disruptions to supply chains. With the prioritization of hygiene and safety during the pandemic, and the reliance on online delivery services on account of social distancing norms, conscientious consumption has taken a back seat, and the focus on sustainable habits such as reducing packaging waste has potentially been diluted. The dependence on plastic and other packaging materials for the transport of medicines has also highlighted the need to carefully reflect on sustainability in the pharmaceutical sector.

Although it is very difficult to make far-reaching systemic changes towards sustainability while a pandemic is ongoing, the recent disruptions in the waste management industry have highlighted areas that should be prioritized for future engagement and long-term policymaking.

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