Impacts of the pandemic on deposit-refund and curbside recycling systems

The recycling industry is not being spared by COVID-19. Éco Entreprises Québec (ÉEQ) presents two reports* showing the main impacts of the pandemic on deposit-refund and curbside recycling systems in Québec, Canada, the US and Europe. 

Five key findings emerging from the outset:

Curbside recycling is an essential service

Whereas only trash collection used to be considered essential, most jurisdictions, including Québec, have now added curbside recycling to their list of essential services.

Modern sorting centers better meet the requirements

Prevention measures for curbside recycling workers are quite similar across jurisdictions. The most highly-automated and most well-ventilated materials recovery facilities (MRF) are the ones that best meet requirements regarding physical distancing and the risks of airborne transmission. Furthermore, in terms of human resource issues, MRF operators seem to be more frequently affected than collectors.

Opportunity for the circular economy for recyclables

Recovery plans in Europe (relaunch of the Green Deal) and the United States (possible inclusion of the RECOVER Act on the modernization of recycling programs and infrastructure) include circular economy measures. The road is paved for Canada and Québec to follow suit.

Curbside recycling : A resilient system

Overall, curbside collection has proven more resilient than the various other drop-off points and the deposit-refund program during the crisis: most deposit-refund systems in Canada and the US have seen their service either completely or partially interrupted. The crisis also shows the strength of extended producer responsibility (EPR), the process by which companies pay for the recovery of containers, packaging and printed matter they place on the market. Indeed, in Canada, curbside recycling has continued throughout the provinces where EPR is implemented, as in Québec, whereas in the United States, several municipalities have interrupted services due to the additional costs brought on by the impacts of COVID-19.

Recovery as a critical procurement source

The slump in recovery activities due to COVID-19 jeopardizes several industry sectors and highlights the importance of recovery as a critical procurement source towards maintaining essential manufacturing activities. Considerable variations in the sources (ICI (industrial, commercial and institutional) vs residential, refundable containers, etc.) and the nature of collected materials have sparked a movement within recycling markets for those materials. Recycled materials represent 40% of the total demand for raw materials needed to manufacture consumer goods, according to the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR).