Dr. Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ, talks to us about the challenges of operating waste and recycling collections during the Coronavirus pandemic.

SUEZ is maintaining municipal services as best we can, where we are working for local authorities. Collection, treatment services and disposal are currently running pretty much as close to close to full capacity as possible. Some of the ancillary, marginal services such as green waste or food waste or bulky waste collection has stopped, as well as most of our commercial collections, as many businesses are closed or working from home.

This lockdown is likely to go on for a while longer. It’s difficult to predict of course, but I’m not expecting to see a significant change in behaviour, operation and performance between now and probably September.   

Shortage of recyclate hasn’t been a big problem for the UK so far. Almost all local authorities are still running recycling collection, although the frequency may have dropped. There is one problem in the UK that might arise – single-stream collection relies a lot of manpower, and the next few months are going to be challenging. Trying to run a materials recovery facility without people standing next to each other is almost impossible. If we can’t get clean material in, we will struggle to get clean material out. Automation works to a point, but it cannot isolate contaminated cardboard, or flexible packaging stuck to a piece of paper.  Other countries that have been hit even harder by the pandemic, such as Italy and Spain, the recycling system is pretty much on its knees.

On the subject of disruption of circular economy efforts, unfortunately some of the fundamental progress areas are being undermined because of concerns around viral spreads. For me, it is a question of how long the restrictions will be in place. We will quickly unlearn good habits, as it had been quite hard to learn them in the first place. I am worried that people who were buying loose products, who were getting into reusable bottles, would think the new norm is the old norm, and then it will be a difficult big job to re-educate the public post COVID. I think there is a big issue here for packaging generally, not just flexibles. In order to deal with this challenge once the crisis is over, it will need alignment with other trade bodies and different packaging materials, and share a joint message about the importance of the circular economy and the climate emergency to still keep on track with our sustainability goals.