HWRCs - Should they reopen post lockdown?

Since the country went into lockdown the vast majority of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) have closed. Since, the industry presents consequences and considerations as whether they should reopen or not.

Since the country went into lockdown the vast majority of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) have closed. In the build up to their closure there had been numerous reports of members of the public ignoring social distancing guidelines and even reports of staff receiving verbal assault when trying to encourage visitors to follow the rules.

So as the country is still in lockdown why are local authorities considering reopening their sites?

DEFRA Guidance

DEFRA have been vocal in their wish for local authorities to keep HWRCs open if social distancing guidelines can be adhered to. Mid-April DEFRA released guidance saying “If it is possible to keep HWRCs open, make sure that social distancing rules can be maintained. Always provide adequate staffing levels for health and safety and security purposes.”

The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT) have been conducting weekly surveys of councils to give an idea on how services are being maintained across the industry. For the week commencing 25 April they reported that 98% of HWRCs had ‘services not available’ but that is expected to change very quickly with news that many sites will be reopening in England in the coming weeks, with some already beginning to do so.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said in the house of commons on 28 April “…today I’m announcing that I’m asking councils to plan the organised re-opening of HWRCs. I expect this to happen over the coming weeks and will be publishing amended guidance shortly.”

I think we can all agree this is a clear message from a senior official. Whilst this news will be of relief to many of us who have had large clear-outs in the house or finally got around to sorting out the garden during lockdown, some in the industry have aired caution in how this re-opening is achieved and even questioning whether it is responsible to do so.

Industry Response – Contrasting Opinions

Waste Management company Suez released a document in April with their reaction to keeping or reopening HWRCs which questioned whether going to a HWRC could be justified as ‘essential travel’. The document states that their interpretation of the government guidance “means that only if residual or food waste did not have a collection regime (of whatever infrequency) would it be lawful to open an HWRC under the current Restrictions”

The effects of HWRCs being closed, as well as causing disruption to some members of the public, has had huge knock on effects for several sectors within the waste management industry. The Wood Recycling Association have been one of the voices calling for a thought-out reopening of sites. It is reported that 25% of the wood waste volume generated in the UK comes via HWRCs. Therefore, this means that their closure is having knock on effects for both recyclers and supply into biomass plants.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) sector is another which has been particularly badly affected by the closure of HWRCs as the reprocessors of WEEE receive a large volume of material through these sites. Last week the WEEE Fund announced £5m of support for WEEE reprocessors to help plug some of the holes the lack of material flow is having on the sector.

Another concern the report raises is around the implementation of social distancing at sites which they mention as being designed, “to channel people together into safe zones to protect the public from other moving vehicles.” The report makes clear the difficulty in maintaining distance in a system which is designed to do the absolute opposite.

Offering a different perspective Global Waste Management firm Veolia also have released some literature which details their advice on how HWRCs could stay open or even come back online. Veolia have continued to operate the Sheffield HWRC networks throughout the lockdown and therefore have some experience on how it can be achieved safely.

They have outlined that first off anyone who is self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms must not visit HWRCs under any circumstance. They also say the public should only visit sites if it is ‘absolutely necessary’, the example they give is if bulky items stored at home represent a health and safety risk.

They go on to say social distancing must strictly be enforced, with operatives not being able to assist the public as they normally would. Reduced operating hours and reducing ‘on foot’ access are further measures of trying to minimise the chances of transmission of the disease at the sites.

Look Out for Further Guidance

There have been reports of some sites planning on reopening but not looking to accept all materials immediately. It is likely there will be regional factors why certain sites may not be able to switch all services back on immediately but clear communication to the public in these instances will be essential. If people are queuing for a long period of time to get into a HWRC and then find out they will not take their type of waste, this will lead to frustration and further issues such as the potential for fly tipping.

So, as it seems a sizeable re-opening of HWRCs is imminent it will be interesting to monitor how this is managed. You would imagine any reopening will need to be with close conjuncture between local authorities and the police to ensure the HWRC operation is in line with police guidance on essential travel. The last thing anyone wants is for sites to be reopened and then people being fined for going there so clear communication all round is essential. Whist a large percentage of the industry is in desperate need of the throughputs HWRCs will likely generate, everyone surely agrees the health and safety of the operatives working there, as well as the visiting public, must be of primary importance.

Technology can also help to reduce risk where possible. Veolia already have links on their website to a ‘view the queue’ series of webcams for some of their HWRCs which is a really good way of being able to check exactly how busy a site is before leaving home. With some stories in the last fortnight for several mile-long queues to get into facilities, ideas like this could offer an effective way of reducing these instances.

For further updates on the above and more please join us for our fortnightly webinars around waste management during the pandemic. They are free to attend, and details can be found here.