Has lockdown made us more wasteful?

The impact of the pandemic on our domestic waste habits

Living life with COVID-19 is about getting back to normality as much as possible while taking the steps we need to defend ourselves and our communities against the threat of more outbreaks and economic chaos of lockdowns.

A major effect of the pandemic was to change our shopping habits. Here we discuss the popular perception of these changes and try to understand the overall influence on the levels of waste and recycling generated.

1. Panic buying = more domestic waste

In the initial phase of the pandemic, there was a huge spike in sales of food and consumable goods (like loo roll) through panic buying. If it gets used by the use by date time, the packaging goes into the waste as usual. If it spoils, then product and packaging goes into the bin.

However, some have a long shelf life and may sit in a cupboard for years. So the overall impact on the volume of waste resulting from panic buying is not perhaps proportional to what may be suggested by the increase in the volume of food and goods sold.

2. Shortages = less domestic waste

Panic buying also results in shortages. Essentially the amount of food and goods available for sale is the same, whether it is panic bought or not. Therefore the amount of waste generated should be largely the same, except for spoilage. As production ramps up in response to demand (should raw material be available), the amount of product for sale increases and this tends to increase the amount of waste generated.

3. Home delivery supermarket shopping = less domestic waste

Supermarket online ordering and delivery reduces footfall at stores and this reduces impulse buying, either through panic… (Loo roll is running out – I’d better buy extra!), or through taking advantage of price reductions or price promotions. Naturally, the net result of this is less waste.

4. Less eating out and more eating at home = more domestic waste

With restaurants shut, everyone eats at home (or food prepared at home) increasing domestic food and packaging waste. However with fast food also shut, takeaway food packaging such as single use cups and boxes, coffee cups, pizza boxes and bargain buckets is eliminated.

5. More online shop home delivery = more cardboard waste

When it comes to online and home delivery for non-food and domestic consumable goods, outlets such as Amazon and eCommerce enabled businesses of all denominations have been invaluable in helping to keep things going. Of course, this generates considerable volumes of cardboard and packaging materials waste.

6. More home drinking = more recyclable cans and bottles

With pubs shut, shops have had a boom time when it comes to alcohol sales. In 2018, pubs sold around 23.3 million pints every day. With hospitality doors shut across the country, an awful lot more cans and bottles have found their way into the domestic waste and recycling system. Environment agency data for aluminium packaging indicates that May 2020 saw an increase of 48% compared with May 2019.

7. Less shopping in general = less waste

Despite the eCommerce boom, (making up 60-70% of total sales compared to around 40% before COVID-19), with the shops shut, there has been less shopping in general, driving down the amount of waste.

8. Less industry actually working = less waste

With as many as 9.1 million people furloughed and a lot more redundant or squeezed out of employment, there is rather a lot of work not being done. With economic output severely interrupted, a lot less waste is being generated by offices and industrial processes.

9. Home working = less commercial and more home waste

Many of those that are still being productive are working from home. Of course there is less waste overall from economic activity, however the waste from work that is being done at home is dealt with by the domestic sector and is unpaid, whereas workplace collection and processing would be paid.

10. Clearing up gardens, sheds and spare rooms = more waste

Furlough and not in work created a necessity for people to stay active. Much of the activity has centred around putting the domestic environment in order. The waste and recycling from DIY and clear outs of homes and gardens is considerable.

11. HWRC closures = more domestic waste

Shutting waste and recycling centres was a necessary step. But what of the waste and recycling generated by Britons as they embarked on spring and summer DIY projects, chuck outs and gardening? Some is being stored in gardens, some is slowly being taken to Household Waste and Recycling Centres (HWRCs) as lockdown winds down. However rather inevitably, some has found its way into the domestic waste and recycling collection system.

So, has COVID-19 made us more wasteful?

In time, as more data and analysis emerges, we are likely to see a clearer picture of the overall result. One view is that in the majority of areas discussed, over time there is no significant increase.

For example the amount of garden waste is a constant, it just depends on when it enters the HWRC system. There may be spikes in demand for processing it, but there isn’t an increase in the overall amount to be processed. Put another way, COVID-19 doesn’t make the grass grow faster!

Certainly when it comes to alcohol there is a clear increase because beer would normally be distributed to pubs in reusable aluminium barrels. Lockdown has increased drinking at home, and the amount of discarded aluminium and glass packaging.

In other areas, it may a be little early to identify the overall result of COVID-19 on the amount of waste we generate. However in many cases it is likely to be largely a zero sum game.

Whatever the demand for waste processing and recycling, you can be sure you’ll do it more efficiently using our municipal waste management technology. Book your free demo now and find out why hundreds of UK authorities use Whitespace to coordinate refuse collections.

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