Keeping staff safe, employed and ensuring waste and recycling stays on track is essential in the face or coronavirus, writes Rose Read, CEO of the NWRIC.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, defining what is and isn’t an essential service is a hot topic of discussion across every industry sector in Australia. While not necessarily reflected consistently or comprehensively in all state legislation and regulations, there is no doubt governments at all levels consider waste and recycling services, and more importantly the workforce that make it happen, as essential.

“With a national focus on hygiene, the role of waste and recycling companies and their workers servicing homes, hospitals, building sites and supermarkets underlines the Prime Minister’s declaration that everyone who has a job in this challenging economy is now an essential worker,” wrote Commonwealth Environment Minister Sussan Ley on social media in March.

This is welcome news from the Government. While it would be ideal to have a nationally consistent definition used by all states, what is key is that trucks can move across State and Territory borders where necessary, staff can get to and from work and waste service providers have access to critical supplies needed to do their job.

This is evident by the willingness of all levels of government to listen and work with our members to address issues and challenges as they arise. From relaxation of collection curfews and flexibility in facility licensing conditions, to securing PPE and other key operational supplies.

Most state government Environment Ministers and departments have now set up weekly catch ups with key representatives from the waste and recycling sector to stay on top of issues, and feed them into the relevant state emergency and COVID response teams for consideration. Likewise at a national level, ministers and key federal agencies are accessible and listening. There is a lot on their plate.

For the NWRIC members their focus has been on helping staff adapt to new working conditions out in the field or working from home. It’s a massive shift in everyone’s daily life and supporting staff through this process is an absolute priority.

Substantial work is also being undertaken on business continuity plans including working with council and business customers to maintain services in the context of social distancing, hygiene and staff safety.

Likewise, looking at how businesses within the sector can help each other out in maintaining collections and operation of facilities, should the need arise. The willingness to cooperate and help each other out where needed across the sector is a key strength. One example of this has been the driver exchange program setup by the Victorian Transport Association, which allows companies to share drivers should the need arise.

On the financial side, volumes are changing across the sector, which will obviously impact the bottom line for every business. With many businesses closing up, volumes in the C&I are slowing, while MSW are increasing as more and more of us ‘#stayhome’. It is still unclear how C&D or organic and FOGO volumes will change at this time.

On the e-waste side, the demand for second hand computers, screens and associated IT accessories to set up home offices has gone up, as has the need and ensure everyone has access to services online.

In terms of handling COVID-19 waste, the Commonwealth and State Departments of Health provide guidance on this, with it being declared as a clinical waste in the health care environment, and to be bagged up and placed in the rubbish bin for residential properties.

With federal and state government support packages being announced on a regular basis we encourage businesses to reach out to their state associations, the ATO and centrelink for information on what is available and relevant for your organisation.

The NWRIC has also suggested that relief be considered for landfill levy charges where relevant. For example, it is likely that some businesses will default on debts during this difficult time. Therefore, we propose that levies on bad debts be waived. Similarly, planned levy increases, such as proposed recently by Victoria should be deferred for 6 months. In the case of WA a temporary waiver of levies at this time will discourage the disposal of metropolitan C&D waste out into regional areas.

Further, we believe now can be a challenging time for some recyclers as ports and overseas markets are slowing or closing. This is of particular relevance to those recyclers exporting recovered metals, paper, plastic, shredded tyres and refuse derived fuels. Providing temporary levy waivers on residuals from these recycling facilities would help keep staff employed and businesses operating.

The clear message we are receiving from health departments are practice good hygiene, social distancing and stay at home unless you are going to work, shopping, exercise or other essential travel.  Even if we’re fit and well, these important actions will keep our staff safe and protect vulnerable Australians and health care workers.

This article was first published in Waste Management Review April 2020.