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Recyclables are picked up but taken to dump as waste haulers apply coronavirus restrictions

“Green” green waste truck and cart from Waste Management uses CNG.
Waste Management is among trash-collection companies suspending recycling processing.
(File Photo)

Recyclable items are going straight to landfills during the coronavirus pandemic as area haulers move to protect workers at facilities where they say maintaining 6-foot social distancing is impossible.

“Some of the waste processing and recycling work we do is labor-intensive, involving hundreds of employees working in sort lines handling materials,” Alex Oseguera, a director of government affairs for Waste Management’s California operations, wrote in a March 18 letter to the city of Newport Beach. “While we have already instituted measures designed to protect our employees at these facilities — both office staff as well as those involved with operations — we have determined that due to current California restrictive or ‘shelter in place’ orders, as well as quarantine requirements, we must cease operations temporarily at those facilities where we cannot implement appropriate safeguards.”

The recycling suspension reaches beyond Newport Beach.

For Houston-based Waste Management, it includes operations at recycling facilities around California: in Orange, Los Angeles, Azusa and Pico Rivera, plus Santa Maria, San Leandro, Lodi and Sacramento. Oseguera said the company would continue offering pay and benefits to displaced workers.

The company will continue to pick up garbage and recyclable materials. So will Stanton-based CR&R, which serves six Southern California counties. Recyclables, however, will be consolidated into the trash stream.

“Many of our recycle processing activities are very labor-intensive, with a number of employees working in close proximity to one another,” CR&R said in a March 19 letter to Newport Beach. “After careful evaluation, we have concluded that these activities do not meet current state and federal guidelines.”

Waste collection and disposal are “essential” services exempt from state and local shutdowns. But companies say the social distancing guidelines adopted to combat the transmission of the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19 are not possible in every work setting. That includes facilities where employees stand nearly shoulder to shoulder hand-sorting discarded household materials.

Newport Beach Public Works Director Dave Webb said several haulers that do business in the city notified local officials of similar plans to suspend recycling.

“I think recyclables are having two problems,” Webb told the City Council at its March 24 meeting. “One, with the current virus. The other thing is, there’s no market.”

China, once a leading importer of American recyclables, stopped accepting certain types of plastic and paper in 2017, disrupting the recycling industry.

“I don’t know how long this is going to last,” Webb said.

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