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Waste Worker on COVID-19 Front Lines, Too

During the 1918 flu pandemic no class of Americans was spared, including garbage men. In San Francisco, illness rapidly thinned their ranks, and trash piled up in streets and backyards, leaving the city little choice but to cover it with dirt. In Kansas City, Missouri, medical waste was tossed atop the household waste already piling up in public spaces, creating new hazards for the diminishing numbers of people employed to collect it, and those who lived, worked and played in the city. Today, Covid-19 poses several unique challenges for the U.S. waste collection and disposal industry and the 467,000 workers employed by it. Above all, it is likely to generate a surge in solid medical waste such as used surgical masks and empty IV bags.

Photographer: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

At the height of the epidemic in Wuhan, China, the city was producing 240 tons of medical waste a day, and the government had to deploy mobile treatment facilities to manage it. The good news is that, unlike China, the U.S. has sufficient capacity at specialized medical waste treatment centers to manage whatever is generated in hospitals and other medical facilities. In fact, it’s been managing medical wastes safely - including wastes far more hazardous than items carrying Coronavirus - for years.

According to, across the industry concern is rising about the impact on employees and the ability to collect and process waste. Some recycling centers are closing to maintain safe distances between customers and employees. In Platteville, Wisconsin, waste workers have been instructed not to pick up garbage that falls from a torn or ripped bag, for fear of infection. The National Waste & Recycling Association, an association of almost 700 members, has expressed concern that personal protective equipment for waste workers is unavailable because of panic buying by the general public.

Waste industry employers must strive to provide and enforce the use of personal protective gear, and workers must double-down in their commitment to using it.

Often, industry accidents happen because employees simply don’t like wearing gear or set it aside because it’s uncomfortable. Finally, Americans should take extra care with their waste and recycling, especially if it was generated in a quarantined home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using gloves when handling trash generated by an ill person. Doing so will not only protect the health of the people employed to collect your trash, but also help to maintain clean cities where disease outbreaks are rare and quick.

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