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Unpacking the pandemic’s profound impact on the waste sector

Home Business Management Disaster Management Unpacking the pandemic’s profound impact on the waste sector

ONE of the biggest changes last year was how businesses globally re-evaluated their approach to cleaning and hygiene regimes, including revision of waste management activities and protocols. This was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and 2021 will see these changes continuing.

That’s according to Brindha Roberts, Head of Sustainability at waste management company Averda, who added that one of the most interesting developments in major companies was how they now are including their new cleaning and waste management protocols into their communication strategies and incorporating these into their brand messaging.

“What led to this is the environment of increased regulatory compliance, public and businesses demands for cleanliness and the importance of retaining and attracting new clients,” Roberts said.

Waste generators also have legal responsibility, according to the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, to take all appropriate steps to manage waste in such a way that it does not harm health or the environment.

With that in mind 2020 saw a change in the nature of residential waste. Roberts said the pandemic had necessitated an increase in the use of PPE (disposable masks and gloves) and therefore disposal of medical-type waste within domestic waste streams for citizens to comply with new regulations.

Realising that waste had become more ‘healthcare’, the waste management sector had to make some changes, firstly to help educate non-medical professionals on the correct way of handling their waste, especially items that previously were never considered hazardous, such as used tissues.

Secondly, public awareness of the measures taken to protect frontline collection employees who handle waste. This includes handling and packaging of the ‘new’ waste that is being generated due to the pandemic. This group of employees offering essential services are exposed to a significant health and safety risk, and these are the people directly employed by the waste management sector.

“Understanding this first-hand and how the pandemic impacted the waste management sector, Averda ensured that protocols and procedures were updated to protect clients and staff from the beginning,” said Roberts.

Before the COVID-19 there were standard health and safety policies and protocols in place, but these were not enough.

“While South African law focuses on the control of waste within organisations and communities, there is little legislation that specifically supports waste workers who are at the coalface of this vital and hazardous industry.”

Roberts said that at the start of the lockdown, in March 2020 in particular, specific measures were implemented, including revision and training on stricter waste handling procedures, ensuring consistent supply of PPE, clocking stations upgraded to no-touch facial recognition biometrics, temperature testing and self-declarations (including co-morbidities) of all people who enter the sites.

High risk employees were identified and on consultation with medical professionals, alternative work arrangements were made to limit their exposure.

Being a global company, Averda worked with their international teams to identify trends and adopt best practice and learnings even prior to legislation being enforced locally.

“As a company that already has a focus on the containment of hazardous materials, we were able to apply our expertise to our broader operations and sites. Every organisation in South Africa should be taking steps like this right now as we find ourselves in the second wave,” Roberts said.

“To ensure the health and safety of everyone within the waste management value chain – as well as of the population at large – companies should contract providers with the expertise and compliance to safely manage waste while limiting harm to their employees.”

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