Trash Industry Braces for Potential Deluge of Coronavirus Waste

Medical-waste processors are handling more masks and gowns, while collectors worry about infected recycling and garbage.

Wall Street Journal
By Saabira Chaudhuri
March 30, 2020 5:30 am ET

As coronavirus spreads across the U.S., the trash industry is girding for a potential rise in infectious waste while grappling with concerns about workers’ exposure to the pathogen.

The U.S. is looking to China, where daily medical-waste volumes jumped sixfold in Wuhan as more people contracted the virus, prompting the government to deploy dozens of portable waste-treatment facilities. Chinese officials recently said medical-waste facilities in 29 cities were at or near full capacity.

In the U.S., waste-treatment companies say hospitals are already generating more trash that needs to be specially treated, while the pandemic is also challenging regular household collection.

Stericycle Inc., one of the country’s largest medical-waste processors, says it has seen an influx of masks, gloves and gowns in recent weeks. The company, which steam-sterilizes infectious trash before it is landfilled or incinerated, also started handling waste from new sources such as cruise ships, where passengers were quarantined.

The company says that coronavirus waste should be manageable, partly because of an expected drop in waste from elective procedures and dentist visits, and that it can run extra shifts at facilities. Coronavirus also generates much less waste than previous crises such as Ebola, in which patients’ body fluids were a big contributor.

Still, a Stericycle spokeswoman cautioned that “the environment is rapidly changing, and forecasting volumes is challenging.”

When coronavirus first emerged, some states recommended that any waste generated by patients be classified as regulated medical waste, meaning it needed treatment to be rendered noninfectious before being landfilled, said Tiffany Wiksten, manager of infection prevention and control at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Federal regulators have since said only a small amount of waste from health-care facilities—such as equipment contaminated with bodily fluids—needs such treatment, with the rest considered regular trash. But the issue continues to generate unease for some hospitals and collection workers.

“When you have an unknown or new virus like coronavirus, the initial response is to put as many precautions into place as possible,” Ms. Wiksten said. “Waste does rise proportionally to the number of patients we have coming in, with the rise mainly being in the amount of disposable personal protective equipment you use.”

Those masks and gloves in particular are items of concern for waste haulers, said Katie Wickman, sustainability manager at Advocate Aurora Health, a large Midwest hospital system. “They question if it’s safe for their folks to handle,” she said.

Some hospitals are asking for masks and other waste from coronavirus cases to be incinerated “as an extra level of precaution,” said Brad Wright, vice president of health-care solutions at Covanta Holding Corp., the U.S.’s largest waste-to-energy company.

After inquiries from hospitals and regulators, Covanta recently began incinerating coronavirus-related waste at one of its facilities. The company says capacity to process regulated medical waste in the U.S. could be insufficient, with early modeling showing “a significant shortfall” in capacity over the coming months.

Concerns about infectious waste go well beyond what is generated at hospitals.

A rising number of regular, household recycling programs are being suspended, with some cities saying workers who sort by hand could be at risk from the virus lingering on surfaces.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine this month showed that coronavirus can remain on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours.

Federal guidelines say waste workers need gloves and masks, but Pete Keller, recycling head at Republic Services Inc. —one of America’s largest waste haulers—said he is having difficulty securing masks. The National Waste & Recycling Association, a trade body, says some of its members are running out of protective gloves and hand sanitizer.

“While we’re out on the street collecting waste, washing hands is a challenge,” said Darrell Smith, NWRA’s chief executive.

Waste workers in Pittsburgh on Wednesday refused to do collections after they said two colleagues had tested positive for coronavirus and the sanitation department hadn’t told them. In a live stream on Facebook, workers said they wanted masks and hazard pay. The mayor’s office said the city is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and gives workers gloves.

The NWRA is asking hospitals to label bags containing coronavirus-related waste “as a sign to our waste collectors that they should use extra caution,” Mr. Smith said. That effort is voluntary.

To mitigate increased volumes and a potential shortage of workers, the waste industry has secured a federal exemption that allows workers to drive for longer periods. It is also lobbying for trucks to be allowed to transport larger loads.

While more waste is a challenge for some operators, a big drop in trash from offices, restaurants and malls is threatening business for others.

E.L. Harvey & Sons Inc., a Westborough, Mass.-based waste hauler that serves the Boston area, has already been forced to furlough 100 of its 350 workers following a sharp drop in commercial and industrial-waste volumes.

“I’ve been in this business 50 years, and that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” President Ben Harvey said. He expects volumes to eventually fall 50%. While residential waste has risen, revenue from that work is usually fixed regardless of volumes, unlike contracts with offices and shops.

He fears things could get worse if his customers, many of which are small businesses, struggle to reopen. “We’re afraid there’s going to be a lot of bad debt that will come out of this,” Mr. Harvey said.

NWRA’s Mr. Smith said the $2 trillion stimulus package contains some provisions that can help the industry, including loans for small businesses. He also is pleased the industry was included in the Department of Homeland Security’s critical-infrastructure list, which should minimize hurdles to getting work done. Road closures contributed to trash piling up in China, and the U.S. trash industry has been in talks with regulators to ensure trucks can keep moving.

“There’s a history of public health suffering when waste collection is disrupted. We just want to keep trucks on the road,” Mr. Smith said. “We are an industry that’s easily forgotten about until things aren’t working, and then we’re quickly remembered.”

Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at

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