Traverse City News and Events

Recycling, Reuse Prove Tricky During Pandemic

By Beth Milligan | March 30, 2020

Households accustomed to taking their pop cans back to the store, calling a recycling center to haul away old mattresses and televisions, and donating used goods to thrift stores are finding all of those options disrupted during the pandemic. Local recycling and reuse businesses are changing their practices and offering tips to residents to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus through contaminated goods.

Andy Gale of Bay Area Recycling for Charities (BARC) says his company has cut back staff, discontinued all recycling drop-offs at the plant, and limited pick-ups to those that are outdoors or at the end of driveways. “We stopped our special pick-up schedule for refrigerators and mattresses, because a lot of the time that involves going into the home,” he says. For other items, “we’re encouraging customers to put materials outside their doors or into the alleyway as opposed to inside the building or a hallway.”

While it appears COVID-19 is most readily spread through person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets, the virus has been found to remain infectious on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for two to three days, cardboard for up to 24 hours, and copper for four hours, according to the National Institutes of Health. Collecting recycled goods and trash – all materials that could carry the virus – is considered an essential business under Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home Stay Safe” executive order. But doing so requires extra layers of precaution, says Gale.

“Munson is one of our clients, and when we pick up bales of cardboard there, we’ll spray down those bales and boxes of paper right there,” says Gale. “We’ve already limited a lot of the material that we’ve normally had coming in…for the materials still coming in, we’re trying to limit the amount that hasn’t been disinfected.”

BARC works primarily with commercial clients and special events – the latter of which has taken a significant blow business-wise. “This is definitely going to be a different year for BARC when it comes to special events,” Gale says. “Everything we had in our books up through May has been cancelled. The Bayshore, the beer festival, the NMEAC (Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council) awards. Many Earth Day events, which are normally big for recycling. It’s going to come back…but for now the easiest thing to do is not pass things between each other, and that includes recycling.”

Whitmer’s administration appears to agree, as the state has suspended all bottle return services in grocery and convenience stores. While the stores themselves remain open, their bottle return areas are “not considered critical infrastructure,” according to a state FAQ page on the stay-at-home order. Because the service suspension is temporary, “there will be no change in the deposit collected at the time of purchase” on cans and bottles, according to the state. Some customers could choose to wait out the suspension and hold on to their empties until the order is lifted, but for those unwilling to do so, American Waste – which handles the majority of residential recycling and trash collection in the Grand Traverse region – will recycle them, says co-owner Eddie Ascione.

“We absolutely intend to continue to collect recycling,” says Ascione. “If that were to cease, people would still need to get things out of their household, and it’d be landfilled at that point. We would do everything in our power to prevent that.” Since American Waste handles both recycling and trash, eliminating recycling just means the same materials would likely end up in the trash, which American Waste processes anyway, Ascione explains. He says the company has seen some bottom-line impacts in terms of reduced commercial demand, but that reduction has been offset by increased residential volume as more people stay home.

While American Waste plans to continue its recycling and trash services uninterrupted – a local advantage during a time when numerous communities have experienced interruptions in those services – the company is taking extra precautions when it comes to workers. “We’ve instituted additional safety controls with personal protection equipment,” Ascione says. “We went to mandatory respirators, a higher grade of respirator, and we use the nitrile gloves. Knock on wood, we haven’t had anyone come down sick.” To help protect staff, Ascione says it’s more important than ever that residents bag their trash – no opening up a dumpster and throwing loose litter in – and that households contact American Waste if a member has coronavirus so the company can take extra precautions during recycling and trash pick-up. Ascione also recommends periodically sanitizing recycling and trash bins/dumpsters to prevent disease spread, particularly at properties with shared collection bins.

The pandemic has also affected recycling and reuse when it comes to donating and selling second-hand items. The Women’s Resource Center has closed its thrift shop – in compliance with the stay-at-home order – and is not accepting any donations. While Salvation Army has also closed its thrift store, “team members will be cleaning and doing other necessary work at the store,” according to the organization’s website, with donations accepted through a call-ahead service Monday-Friday 9am-3pm (231-946-5194).

Goodwill’s retail store is also temporarily shuttered, but the organization is accepting curbside donations daily at the South Airport location from 12pm to 6pm. All donated items will be quarantined for up to four days. Goodwill also serves as the collection point for donations for Munson Healthcare, the American Red Cross, the Northwest Food Coalition of Northern Michigan/Food Rescue, and the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness/Street Outreach. Goodwill has compiled wish lists for each of the above organizations for items that are most needed - providing an avenue for residents to still recycle goods during the pandemic while also supporting groups working on the front lines.

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