San Jose produces less waste under COVID-19. But it’s not all good news.
A Waste Management truck collects garbage in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Wade Tyler Millward

COVID-19 has produced more complications for professionals in local waste and recycling collection.

While the job has become all the more important with greater waste generation in residential areas of San Jose, waste hauling companies have felt the financial squeeze of suspended and terminated pickups by businesses plus a lapse in recycling etiquette from locals.

The lapse could mean less company earnings from recycled waste and added expenses for disposing the added contamination. This means a strain on the environment and safety concerns for workers.

Overall, San Jose has seen a significant decrease in solid waste collection, a city spokeswoman said in an email. On the commercial side, local businesses have produced 50 percent less wet waste like discarded food. They’ve produced 30 percent less dry waste, which includes products made of wood, metal and glass.

The bad news is that this has resulted in 20 percent less separated recyclable materials for waste collection businesses to sell to those who turn recyclables into new goods plus the need to dispose of additional products going to landfills.

On the residential side, San Jose has seen a 10 percent increase in garbage and recycling due to stay-at-home orders. But with more people at home producing waste, more bags of regular garbage are finding their way into recycling bins.

And in the case of some recyclables, such as cardboard, any bit of moisture and contamination could turn it into landfill material.

Part of the issue is space, said Glen Hulsenberg, director of operations at California Waste Solutions, or CalWaste. A full trash bin can lead to people tossing trash into the recycling bin.

The overall surge in food delivery perhaps has people confused as well, Hulsenberg said. Cardboard food containers with food inside are still not recyclable.

CalWaste and GreenWaste are two of four companies contracted for residential waste pickup in San Jose. Republic Services is the only company contracted for commercial pickup in the city.

Dan North, a general manager at Republic, said in an email that the city’s numbers are in line with his company’s experience. He said that he’s seen the community still following proper recycling rules.

“While it may not be on the forefront of everyone’s mind at this point in time, I think it’s an ingrained behavior and we all understand the benefits of properly recycling our discarded materials,” he said.

Before COVID-19, CalWaste’s normal rate of contamination in recycling was about 23 percent. Under shelter-in-place rules, it’s seen levels between 35 and 40 percent, Hulsenberg said.

“Every bit of contamination is affecting the ability of haulers to move product, and that is bringing in less revenue,” Hulsenberg said. The city recently renewed its contract with CalWaste, San Jose’s largest recycling hauler.

The mix of recyclables and garbage also means his workers on the recycling sorting line might become exposed to discarded masks used to prevent spread of COVID-19, increasing those workers’ risk of exposure.

“Think about the folks who have to sort this stuff — think of their safety and well-being,” he said. “Your sister might be working on the line. Your mother might be there.”

In areas it serves outside of San Jose, GreenWaste has seen such a growth in residential waste that it more than offset decreases in commercial pickups. In particular, GreenWaste saw yard trimming tonnage double in the weeks following shelter-in-place orders, said Emily Hanson, chief strategy officer at garbage hauler GreenWaste Recovery. The rate is still higher than normal but has tapered off.

Because of social distancing, GreenWaste drivers have also stopped handing out trinkets like coloring books and beanies to kids who want to talk to drivers, Hanson said.

Hulsenberg hopes that local government agencies might consider relaxing restrictions due to the added challenges under COVID-19. For example, he wonders if agencies might increase the time required to move recyclables from 48 hours to up to 96 hours.

“We’re doing all we can to continue to serve the residents of the cities we serve,” he said.

Contact Wade at wademillward@gmail.com or follow him @WadeMillward on Twitter.

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