View from the ground: what it’s like to be a recycling and waste worker during COVID-19
At this time, we are all relying on the people who deliver essential services more than ever. Recycling and waste workers are now designated key workers, and householders are keen to show their appreciation. But what is it like on the front line? And what about the management team behind the people who drive collection vehicles and emptying our bins?
We spoke to a council manager and a driver team leader about their experiences of the COVID-19 crisis, and how we can help them to continue to do an excellent job
Here are their stories:
“We’re coping well with COVID-19!”
Andrew Jenkins, Waste Promotion Lead Officer at Buckinghamshire Council, talks about how the current crisis has affected his local authority.
“We had an initial flurry of absences caused by the need for self-isolation if workers or people living in their households had possible COVID -19 symptoms and were required to self-isolate, but some staff are now returning, although we still have reduced staffing.”
Buckinghamshire’s situation is complicated by the fact that from 1 April this year it is a newly created council comprising the former Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks and Wycombe District Councils and Buckinghamshire County Council. This means there are four different areas to collect waste from, each with its own challenges. Due to shortage of staff, all areas have currently suspended bulky and garden waste collections. For the same reason, Chiltern and Wycombe have also suspended separate food waste collections, with residents being asked to compost as much as possible at home and put their food waste in with the general rubbish for the time being.
Although lack of staff meant two of the collection areas were briefly obliged to stop recycling collections, all four are now back on track. Due to the need for social distancing and to avoid non-essential travel, all household recycling centres are now closed until further notice.
Andrew is keen to point out that the situation regarding collections can change quickly, depending on staffing levels.
“People need to check the council’s website often – that’s the best way to find out what is being collected and when. We’re also putting out updates on social media. Other, more traditional ways of communicating such as leaflet distribution and word of mouth are simply not available at the moment; by the time we could print and deliver a leaflet, circumstances could easily have changed, and social distancing limits messages being passed from person to person.”
How is morale holding up among recycling and waste collectors?
“They appreciate that they are doing an important job, and there is a lot of enthusiasm. Sometimes we have to insist that people go home and rest, because they want to keep working!”
Changes have had to be made to how the recycling and waste teams work, to lessen the chances of infection being passed from person to person. As it’s still necessary for them to share lorry cabs with co-workers, they are now rostered with the same workers each time they go out, and the cab is deep cleaned between shifts. When it comes to breaks, only groups of two or three are allowed in the mess room (canteen) at any one time.
So how can we help recycling and waste collectors to do their jobs effectively during the COVID -19 crisis?
“The best thing we can all do is maintain normality as much as possible. Don’t overload residential bins. The temptation of being stuck in the house is to have an inside and outside clear-out or start a DIY project. All these things create more waste than usual, so we need to think about what is going to happen to that waste – we can’t expect the council crews to take it away. We need to be able to store it until normal services resume. Home composting is a really good way to absorb particular types of food and some garden waste. Also, if you mow the lawn every few days instead of once a week, it’s possible to leave the clippings on the lawn – which again reduces garden waste. We need to think creatively of more ways to reduce waste.”
Joe Gurney, Driver Team Leader, Waste and Recycling, Buckinghamshire Council, gives the view from the ground.
Joe drives a waste collection vehicle in the Aylesbury Vale district, working with two Loaders who pick up and empty bins. He says morale is high among their colleagues:
“We’re all doing remarkably well, considering. We’re very proud to be maintaining the service. Of course, we’re worried about the virus, like everyone, but we’re stoic and carrying on. It helps that we are supported by a very understanding management team.”
Has the team had to make many adjustments to the way they work?
“The job is the same; we’ve always kept a distance from the public, for health and safety reasons. We’re still travelling three to a cab, but it’s always the same group of three, and the cab is wiped down thoroughly with disinfectant at the end of the day, then locked, so no-one else has access until we use it again. That’s my responsibility, as driver.
“We’ve had to change some of the protocols in the depot – or waste transfer station, to give it its official title. We’re observing social distancing, and some staff have had to self-isolate because they are in the at-risk groups. We used to gather in the mess room after work, and we can’t do that now. One big change is that we have adopted an individual ‘task and finish’ approach, so we can go home as soon as we’ve finished, rather than doing other work until we all leave at a set time. That means we have less contact with other teams, as we all finish at different times, depending on where we’re working.”
Joe’s day starts at around 6.15 am, when he performs checks on his vehicle and picks up the two Loaders. He then drives to where they are scheduled to work that day, which can be 15 to 20 miles away from the depot. The current lack of traffic is helping with time management, but with most people at home, parked cars on the road can be a real problem.
There is also a significant increase in the amount of waste to collect – in the first two weeks of lockdown, there was an increase in general waste collected of more than 10 per cent. Buckinghamshire has put extra collection vehicles on the road and cancelled garden and bulky waste collections to help with this increase.
Are the teams finding the weight of extra waste exhausting?
“They are pulling an extra 2.5 tons a day on average in bins on the round, but they’re very resilient! In some ways the work is less arduous, thanks to lockdown, so it balances out.”
The teams are on very good terms with the residents they serve, and they have been overwhelmed with thank you notes, cards and presents left for them on top of bins.
“One loader was given 19 Easter eggs in one shift! He was thrilled! We really appreciate everything residents are doing to show they care. It’s great when children wave to us through the window, and they’ve been leaving us pictures and cards they’ve made – we love those. And the chocolates, biscuits and cakes!”
However not everyone is as appreciative. Now that the garden waste collection has had to be suspended, a few residents are finding it difficult to accept. And there are still sometimes misunderstandings about what can be put into the different bins; one man recently followed Joe’s vehicle down the road with a bin full of polystyrene packaging that couldn’t be collected as it would contaminate the recycling load. Joe is philosophical: “You always get the odd difficult customer – that doesn’t change. We are as patient as possible, but we can’t run the risk of contaminating the rest of the recycling.”
One big thing that we can do to help our waste collectors during the COVID-9 pandemic is to park considerately. “With most people at home all the time, we’re finding it really difficult to drive down some residential streets. If you see us out and about, please look at how your car is parked and move it if necessary while we do your collection. I’m good at my job, but I’m not a sorcerer – I can’t make the vehicle levitate!”
Joe and his colleagues would like to emphasise that they are doing their job with the same dedication as always – crisis or no crisis. “We’re not superhuman – we’re just as afraid as everyone else. We’re doing our best.”
Recycle Now works with local authorities across England, and the experiences of Andrew and Joe are shared by many. Wherever we live, we can help them to do their jobs to the best of their ability – and keep them safe - by:
- Parking considerately;
- Checking our local council’s website regularly for updates on collections;
- Putting bins out the evening before collection is scheduled;
- Minimising the amount of rubbish, recycling and food waste we produce. Composting is a good way to use garden and food waste https://www.recyclenow.com/reduce-waste/composting;
- Double bagging any potentially infected items like used tissues or cleaning cloths and leaving them for at least 72 hours (3 days) before they go into the external bin;
- Washing our hands regularly;
- Keeping our distance when workers are in our area;
- Cleaning bin handles with disinfectant before and after collection;
- Putting wipes, cloths, gloves etc. used for cleaning into the general waste.
And don’t forget to show your appreciation – give them a wave!