The Positive Impact Of Covid-19 On The Waste Collection Sector
Paul Jackson, Director of the UK’s leading network of independent waste operators, National Resource Consortium (NRC), reflects on how the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 has, one year on, had a revolutionary impact on the waste collection sector.
When the first lockdown hit a year ago on 23rd March 2020, our sector was one of the fortunate few permitted to carry on ‘business-as-usual’. Working on the frontline during a pandemic, many would assume the waste industry faced little adversity during this time. But when the majority of our sector’s customers in retail, hospitality and leisure industries ceased to trade, many demanded their usual waste services be suspended. In just less than a week, operators were left with incomplete routes, too many trucks and drivers, and firm disposal obligations to meet – the key drivers for any waste management business to succeed.
Working throughout this time of great, unprecedented change, our sector had to quickly establish how exactly we were going to collect, handle, transport, recycle and dispose of waste as we had done in a pre-Covid world. As new rules on social distancing and PPE emerged, our industry faced additional pressures to ensure the safety for our partners, members and customers during a time of heightened anxiety around health.
As an industry, we always accepted that the pandemic would take a big financial toll from the outset, which is why we were grateful for any savings we could pick up along the way – and, on reflection, there were many savings to be had. When the Government advised for everyone who could work from home to do so, fewer staff started to attend business premises, and all commercial sites closed their doors entirely. This meant a lot less waste was being produced and bins were significantly lighter to lift, which allowed us to replan our routes to achieve a higher route density, leading to less waste collection vehicles on the road. Laying up surplus waste collection vehicles allowed us to benefit from reduced maintenance costs, fewer insurance claims and lower fuel costs across our whole fleet. And with the majority of the UK staying at home, fuel consumption was less and fuel prices were over 10% cheaper on average in 2020 than in 2019. Not to mention, wage bills were significantly reduced thanks to the new furlough scheme.
These vital savings gave every operator in the market the confidence to go ahead and accept the suspension requests, re-work their route logistics and take advantage of the generous government support packages available. Operators did everything they could to reduce the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses as a means of survival – and it worked. At this point I am unaware of a single waste collector that has gone out of business.
We emerged from Lockdown 1 having completely mobilised a new national collection service and in just a few weeks we were back to normal service levels, demonstrating the local capability of the sector.
But as lockdown and other restrictive measures started to ease, new challenges began to appear. Certain sectors, garden centres and schools, were one of the first premises to reopen, but retail sites were only permitted to open a month later on 15th June 2020. This made it challenging to rebuild efficient routes and in many areas service days and frequencies had to change. During this time, and again throughout the local and second lockdowns, NRC was called upon to support charity retailers in particular. Charity shop donations couldn’t be received or processed, so goods started to pile up on the shopfronts of closed premises. Seen as fly tipping by the local authorities, several charities were subjected to the threat of hefty fines and penalties as a result of other people’s actions. Our response was to provide a fast and effective clearance service to remove the donations left on the shopfronts of closed premises. For a smaller fee and zero penalties, shopfronts could be cleared of all materials regardless of size, volume or bulk.
NRC also established a nationwide disposal service for mixed, bulky waste, including fly tipping. Through this service, customers benefited from a better value and efficient service combined with a flexible, on-demand recycling waste management solution. Galvanised as a result of lockdown, our new service continues to benefit customers during this current lockdown and will be of use in the times beyond Covid-19.
Overall, it’s clear the waste collection sector has stood up and worked with its customers to help them, rather than challenge them, in their time of need. I hope that this continues throughout 2021 and that we can maintain our momentum for improving recycling levels.