Waste management during the COVID-19 outbreak: Investigating a critical sector in crisis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


The COVID-19 outbreak is transforming everyday household waste into a biohazard. Coronaviruses are transmitted person-to-person, however COVID-19 also persists on surfaces for several days (van Doremalen et al. 2020). Consequently, this pandemic is severely impacting the waste management sector; causing disposal and recycling service disruptions, and putting waste workers at risk. Before the emergence of COVID-19 this heavily marketised and deregulated sector - comprising over 3,000 companies - was already associated with elevated rates of death and injury compared to other sectors in the UK (HSE 2019). This project asks to what extent the UK waste management sector is equipped to meet the unprecedented challenges generated by this pandemic.

The interdisciplinary project works in partnership with national industry associations and local authorities to investigate how this critical sector is responding to, and affected by, COVID-19 - particularly in terms of the safety of its workers. It aims to mitigate hazards related to waste management during the outbreak through three interrelated approaches: 1) the project generates urgent data on the sector's rapidly changing waste management practices. It employs social research methods to examine pivotal processes, including collections, disposal, and administration; 2) the project collaborates with key workers to map the sector and design a pandemic toolkit that can amplify workers' voices in decision-making; and 3) in collaboration with the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum, this project creates guidelines and an industry report to enable greater co-ordination between authorities. This research addresses both the immediate crisis and contributes to future preparedness plans.


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