The coronavirus pandemic has sent ripple effects across every industry, as the situation changes each day. For the solid waste and resource recovery industry in the U.S., this crisis is leading to operational changes, service disruptions, volume shifts and facility closures.

Solid waste and resource recovery programs — varying by service type, geographic area, volumes and staffing capabilities — are adapting daily to continue providing their essential services and protecting the health and safety of their employees and the communities they serve. The solid waste and resource recovery industry is focused on navigating these key areas for the foreseeable future:

Continuity of operations plans. Solid waste programs and facilities need to develop and maintain a continuity of operations plan for a broad range of circumstances, such as evolving resources or staffing levels. These plans help address as many unknowns as possible, especially in a time of great uncertainty.

With health and safety a top priority, continuity of operations plans should outline scenarios that promote safety in changing conditions and accommodate various levels of staffing. For example, the continuity of operations plan for the City of Dallas dictates the minimal service disruption that would occur if 10% of staff are unable to work, as compared to a scenario where roll-off containers are placed throughout communities for residents to drop off their waste when more than half of the staff are unable to work.

These continuity of operations plans prompt innovative approaches for adjusting business. Stay-at-home orders are resulting in a major uptick in residential waste set out for collection and a reduction in the amount of commercial and business waste being generated. This shift may require operational changes for local governmental and private service providers. Some programs are strengthening their workforce by cross-training teams so that employees have a range of capabilities to fill staffing gaps or meet new demands.

Health and safety. Safety needs to remain a top priority, and everyone must have a hand in creating a safe environment. Facilities must accommodate social distancing. This requires significant innovation and adaptation for everyday practices. For example, facility managers can stagger shifts and require breaks to be taken individually. Employees who can work from home should be equipped with the resources to do so. In Larimer County, Colorado, the solid waste program has moved some services outdoors to increase space between employees and to allow drive-thru drop-offs.

Necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) should be continuously evaluated and supplied to employees. If there is not enough PPE available for certain services, operations may need to be adjusted. For example, when proper PPE was unavailable for the manual collection of yard waste, the City of Olathe, Kansas, temporarily discontinued that service. New cleaning protocols should also be incorporated, whether it’s cleaning an employee’s workspace every two hours, changing transaction procedures, disinfecting break rooms or regularly sterilizing fleet vehicles.

Many solid waste programs across the U.S. are modifying sick leave or family leave policies so that employees are not pressured to come to work when sick or when they need to care for family members. Providing paid sick time and family leave during the coronavirus pandemic could provide long-term benefits to the health and safety of the entire staff and the community it serves.

These efforts to support the health and safety contribute significantly to staff morale. Solid waste facility leadership must demonstrate preparedness and address the concerns of its staff. In a time of global anxiety, staff need to have trust in their leadership. High staff morale can result in a consistent workforce available to keep operations moving forward safely and to continue to meet customer service needs.

Public engagement. Whether services are being maintained, modified or discontinued, the public needs to know. Facilities should leverage social media, website assets, specialized apps and local news sources to communicate with and educate its customers. For example, Lyon County, Minnesota, has temporarily closed some facilities to self-haul customers. To keep in touch with the rural community it serves, the program is streamlining calls from customers to a consistently available staff member who is answering questions and addressing concerns.

As an essential public service that impacts every single community, changes to solid waste customer service and program operations are a necessity during this pandemic. Solid waste and resource recovery programs must strive to meet today’s demand safely, while planning for long-term transformation.


Solid waste management requires progressive and innovative strategies that fit your community’s evolving needs. 

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Robert Craggs is national technical services leader for the solid waste and resource recovery group at Burns & McDonnell. He serves as the representative for the Planning and Management Technical Division on the advisory board for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and is a board member for the Recycling Association of Minnesota.