Waste in COVID-19: the deadly risks in taking out our garbage

As millions of Americans have been forced to drastically change their lives in response to the global pandemic, one element of our lives has not changed: our garbage. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each American produces about four and a half pounds of solid waste every day. Each week, as Americans bring their trash receptacles out to the curb, it is important to be aware of the potential threat presented by your own garbage – especially for sanitary workers and their families.


The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was confirmed on January 21, 2020. Prior to its spread into America, the virus infected hundreds in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus originated. The virus continues to spread globally at an exponential rate. As of May 6, there have been more than 3.6 million infected and over 250,000 deaths.

The guidelines recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) are clear: if we want to stop the spread of the pandemic, we must practice social distancing. This means self-quarantining at home, limiting trips to the store unless absolutely necessary, and eliminating close contact with anyone outside of your own household. Numerous states have issued stay-at-home orders, banning gatherings and shutting down non-essential businesses. Many companies have adapted to these guidelines so that their employees can safely work from home. 

However, full-time isolation is not an option for some Americans. Those deemed “essential workers” – individuals who maintain services on which the country depends to function – have continued their jobs despite the potential for infection. Essential workers include those in the medical field, food industry, energy sector, and, perhaps one of the most overlooked fields for exposure, the waste management industry. 

The dangers of sanitary work

With millions of Americans now living at home full-time, the amount of residential garbage to be picked up by sanitary workers is greatly increasing. Furthermore, as the weather warms and families have more free time, many have turned to spring cleaning – resulting in even more trash on the curb. Beyond the quantity, the specific items we throw away are threatening to those who come in contact with our garbage. Tissues, hand sanitizer bottles, Lysol wipes, latex gloves, masks, and food take-out containers have all become commonplace in our trash receptacles. 

Outside of residential areas, the amount and type of waste produced by medical services is changing as well. Hospitals, clinics, and other testing sites use protective equipment which must be disposed of after contact with patients. These items fill trash bags which are then left outside for the waste management crew. 

These circumstances have raised concerns for the health and safety of those collecting the garbage. Studies show that a worker in the waste industry on a residential route comes in contact with garbage from thousands of individuals each day. One employee compared the job to Russian roulette, saying that “half the people don’t tie their bags, so when stuff spills out, they tell you to pick it up. There’s Kleenexes that people blow their nose and cough in.” The waste industry itself employs nearly 470,000 workers in the United States. If one employee comes in contact with the virus, the chances are likely that it will spread to the others in the garbage truck as well, where 2 to 3 men sit side-by-side for the whole shift.

Mitigating risk

In order to understand the complications of sanitary work, we must first understand how COVID-19 spreads. As a respiratory illness, the most common way of infection is through tiny droplets released by an infected person coughing or sneezing. Studies have shown that COVID-19 can remain “in the air for up to 3 hours, on copper for up to 4 hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel up to 72 hours.” While disinfectants can inactivate the coronavirus, most Americans do not disinfect their garbage before taking it out to the curb.

The risk for sanitary workers thus exists each and every day as they continue the essential work of picking up the population’s trash. The New York Department of Sanitation reported that its first employee was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 18 in Queens. The mounting fear of contracting the virus and anger surrounding the lack of proper protections has led many sanitary workers to protest. At the end of March, workers in Pittsburgh gathered outside the Bureau of Environmental Services to demand protective gear and hazard pay. The city later issued a statement, saying that they have been following the CDC guidelines, cleaning buildings and trucks regularly, “providing workers with protective glasses and gloves, and doing daily health screenings.”

Many waste management departments have put risk mitigation measures in place, including wiping down surfaces before and after each shift, enforcing hand-washing guidelines, and shifting collection schedules to early morning hours to minimize exposure to others. On March 9, the National Waste and Recycling Association published a list of Frequently Asked Questions to address the impacts of COVID-19 for the waste industry. Recommended precautions followed CDC standards, but overall suggested to continue business as usual. 

What can we do?

The question remains: what role do we have in decreasing the risk for the individuals who are collecting our garbage? First, it is essential that we contain our trash. This means bagging everything in the garbage and ensuring that it all fits properly into the bin. Secondly, it is recommended that we sanitize our containers – lids, handles, and recycling bins – with soap, water, or alcohol-based cleaning products. Lastly, we must keep up with the guidelines of our local waste management company.

From an environmentalist perspective, we often ponder the idea of individualization of responsibility as compared to thinking institutionally. As described by Michael Maniates in his article Individualization: Plant a Tree, Ride a Bike, Save the World, we can see the dangers in placing too much responsibility for larger problems on individuals. This is an important perspective to consider in the context of this global pandemic: while one person sanitizing their trash bin is good, it takes a collective effort of educated choices to ensure the safety of sanitary workers.  

Maniates also discusses how individual choices are framed by larger institutions. This means that it is the major responsibility of our government, corporations, and the community at large to change their practices in order to enforce safe choices amongst individual citizens. By enforcing certain measures, such as shifts in trash collection times, these systems will therefore provide the circumstances for safe garbage pick-up. We could all be carriers of COVID-19, so we must collectively enforce systematic change on top of our own choices to save the lives of others.   

It is clear that consumers have already shifted their buying habits and demands in this crisis. Environmentalists and minimalists are hoping that these trends will lead to a “global realization” that we must focus on smart consumption and utilizing the resources we already have, overall resulting in less waste. Yet these ideals may be far in the future, in a time when disposable gloves, masks, and endless cleaning products are no longer the norm. For now, we must be wary of our garbage. The idiom “one man’s trash is another’s treasure” does not apply when our trash may be carrying a deadly virus. 

Camille Montalbano is a senior Political Science and History double major at SUNY Geneseo.


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