How does the pandemic affect Europe's waste sector?

Technical articles


More than 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste are generated annually. According to a study by the World Bank, by 2050 the annual amount of waste will increase by 70% to 3.4 billion tons, and in low-income countries the volume is expected to triple. Preventing disruptions in waste management, including separate collection and recycling, is key to human health and safety and the well-being of the environment and the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has a significant impact on waste management. During the quarantine, public administrations and operators of municipal waste collection, removal and treatment companies had to quickly adapt their systems and procedures to the new conditions. In some countries, there has been an increase in the quantity of waste generated, which experts explain by the fact that many people, having more free time, decide to clean their homes, basements and attics. In Germany, for example, this leads to long queues in front of recycling centers receiving bulky waste and obsolete electronic and electrical equipment, and in Belgium, reusable textile collection containers are closed. Throughout Europe, however, there has been an increase in the illegal dumping of waste, as well as the emergence of an entirely new waste stream of personal protective equipment.



What has changed?

According to a number of studies, the restrictions on human activity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have lead to significant environmental benefits, such as decreases in concentrations of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere. However, a coplete clarification of the overall environmental impact of the crisis requires further research, as the effects currently reported may be temporary. Scientists also believe that a coordinated strategy for pollution management is needed, as a sharp reduction in the levels of primary pollutants can stimulate the formation of secondary pollutants. It is believed that the introduction of quarantine at the national level in some countries has led to changes in the composition of municipal waste. However, this aspect requires additional monitoring and the collection of sufficient data. That can be achieved most easily by collecting information from municipalities and operators of waste collection and processing facilities.

In many tourist areas there has been a sharp decrease in the amount of waste generated. According to Interreg Europe, the registered decline in Barcelona, for example, amounts to 25%. Several European countries are also reporting a deterioration in the quality and extent of separate waste collection. On the other hand, Milan, which is severely affected by the virus, has managed to maintain a high level of waste separation. The lack of tourists and the cessation of numerous business activities lead to a reduction in the total amount of waste, which also allows redistribution of staff in favor of separate collection. One of the measures taken by some processing plants is the introduction of "quarantine" of different durations for waste, which aims to reduce the infectious characteristics of materials. In one of Portugal's enterprises, for example, municipal waste is stored for 72 hours before proceeding with the treatment process. However, the application of this measure in some regions of Europe requires a derogation from the current regulation in the area, which is usually granted very quickly. This change makes it possible to continue the normal operation of the installations for meano-biological treatment and sorting of waste.

According to guidelines from the World Health Organization and other health institutions, waste from COVID-19 infected persons quarantined at home should be considered hazardous (infectious) and disposed of as such. In practice, however, in many European countries, local authorities are required to treat this waste as mixed municipal waste, to which specific safety measures apply when collecting them, such as using two sealed bags and storing the waste for 72 hours before disposal. These precautions are valid for all types of personal protective equipment, but implementing and verifying them are not always easy tasks. Recycling of glass and paper has also been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. In many countries, supply chains are broken and reduced waste collection services also lead to smaller quantities of recyclable materials. Many of the recycling plants do not work and the different waste fractions stay in overload stations. The French organization responsible for implementing the principle of extended producer responsibility for household packaging and paper, CITEO, reported that 97% of sorting centers had resumed operations since 25 May this year. In addition, because of the distance compliance rules, there are fewer employees on the sorting lines, which also reduces productivity.



How should medical waste be treated?

Medical waste, including those generated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, must be disposed of in accordance with local guidelines and regulations, most often by thermal methods. When handling such waste and modifying existing waste management practices, the viability of the virus on various materials should be taken into account (up to 72 hours on plastic, 48 hours on stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard and 4 hours on copper).

Incineration is a high temperature oxidation process in which organic and combustible waste is reduced to inorganic non-organic non-combustible matter, resulting in a significant reduction in the volume and weight of waste. High temperature thermal processes occur at temperatures between 200°C and above 1000°C, including chemical and physical decomposition of organic material by combustion, pyrolysis and gasification. Among the shortcomings of the method are high energy needs, the release of emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and numerous volatile substances – metals, incomplete combustion products, etc., as well as particulate matter and ash, which should be treated as toxic.

Autoclaves have been used for over a century to sterilize medical instruments, and have subsequently been adapted for the treatment of infectious waste. They are suitable for bed linen, protective equipment, waste from clinical laboratories, waste sharp objects and glassware. Since the process is low temperature, significantly less atmospheric emissions are emitted when treated in an autoclave, so no specific emission limits are set for these facilities.

Microwave treatment is essentially a process in which the water contained in the waste is rapidly heated by microwave energy at a frequency of about 2450 MHz and a wavelength of 12,24 cm. This method is not applicable to volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, mercury and other hazardous chemical wastes. An additional disadvantage is the extremely limited reduction in the volume of waste and the absence of any change in their weight.