Providing waste services during a pandemic

Last week, in response to the evolving COVID-19 situation, the Ontario government ordered at-risk workplaces to close-down, while asking essential businesses and services to put in place “any and all measures to safeguard the well-being of their employees on the front-lines”.  With regards to waste and recycling, municipalities across Ontario are taking actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While circumstances are evolving rapidly, the following is a summary of key actions being taken for curbside collections, depots and MRFs.

Curbside Collections

Contractors are confirming contingency and service continuity plans, continuously monitoring and adjusting on a day to day basis.  Below are actions that a number of communities are taking.

Planning for service level reductions

Municipalities are considering how to implement service level reductions if there is a decrease in the number of drivers and/or trucks available. Changes may be phased-in, for example, by delaying or cancelling special or seasonal services, such as bulky item collection and yard waste, before recycling and other streams. Also being contemplated, is how to reorganize and train staff from other areas to assist with waste operations.

Communicating special set-out requirements

Special set out protocols are being communicated to residents who may have someone in their home who is unwell and needs to dispose of potentially contagious materials. Messaging focuses on keeping materials out of the blue box and/or bagging all garbage and organics, and/or double bagging concerning items like tissues.

Expecting more volume on residential routes

As people stay home, this will likely increase volumes of recycling and garbage, which may impact capacity to collect routes on schedule. In the UK and US, residents are being asked to hold on to, and store excess materials until regular collection operations resume. Some are setting dedicated depot hours to manage this additional material and asking contractors to redirect underutilized vehicles (for example IC&I collection trucks) to assist with residential collections.

Additional health & safety measures for collection staff

Contractors are re-emphasizing wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and increasing sanitizing hands and surfaces in work areas and equipment. Some specific actions include:

    • using smartphone apps for time in/out
    • not sharing personal protective equipment
    • using disposable gloves inside work gloves
    • using tablets for pre & post trip checks
    • trucks disinfected between drivers
    • employees provided with small bottles of refillable hand sanitizer and wipes

Due increased demand and delivery delays, some suggest confirming inventory and suppliers of parts and safety equipment. Some contractors are already experiencing challenges in restocking masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and truck parts.


Perhaps the most visible changes have been occurring around depot operations. Many municipalities have opted to close or restrict access to areas with a lot of personal interaction, such as reuse centres. For open sites, municipalities are taking steps to minimize interactions, by setting up markers (taping/chalk mark “x” on pavement) and “stand here” signage at 6 foot intervals. Other actions include:

  • limiting total number of people onsite, including staff and residents (“one-in, one-out”, “necessary trips only”)
  • shifting staff responsibilities (i.e., queuing traffic)
  • scheduling two-week shifts in operations
  • accepting cashless (debit/credit) outdoor transactions only and cleaning machines between visitors
  • asking residents to drop HHW materials at tables and have staff sort after resident has driven away

Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs)

Increasingly, MRF operators are dealing with employee and contractor concerns associated with the handling of recyclables during the sorting processes. With an increase in the perceived risk of less automated operations, contractors are emphasizing the need for staff to use personal protective equipment properly and practice good hygiene as well as increasing routine sanitary measures throughout facilities such as disinfecting high contact surface areas.

Low risk of virus on recyclables after a few days

John Hopkins University cell biologist Carolyn Machamer suggests the COVID-19 virus can last for up to 72 hours on plastic, but the amount of the virus that remains is less than 0.1% of the starting virus material. She suggests that infection is theoretically possible but unlikely at the levels remaining after a few days. Based on this information, one Ontario MRF is thinking about staging materials to allow for additional time between collection and processing to alleviate staff concerns.

Social distancing at facilities

Other operators are enforcing social distancing practices to ensure staff maintain spacing during breaks and on the lines. Several have cancelled daily scrum meetings or are holding them outside, as well as staggering breaks to limit numbers in the lunch rooms. At the scale house, no signatures are required for tickets and a shift has been made to move to entirely electronic billing.

Staff told to stay home with any signs of sickness

It goes without saying that staff are being reminded of the importance of not coming to work when showing any signs of sickness and that the Government of Canada has put into place strong supports to financially assist quarantined or self-isolating workers during this time.


Above all, stay safe, work together (but separate), and be healthy.

Resource Recycling Inc, SWANA, RPWCO, MWA and many other organizations have been active in updating their members and subscribers on this issue and we encourage you to checkout the links below for more information.