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What impact will COVID-19 response have on environmental efforts?

  • The Peterborough Recycling Center is no longer accepting some items for recycling to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, patrons may throw their recyclables in with their household garbage. Here, Trevor King tosses some aluminum. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Peterborough Recycling Center is no longer accepting some items for recycling to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, patrons may throw their recyclables in with their household garbage. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/22/2020 8:54:58 PM

Recycling centers are changing their policies when it comes to household recyclables amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Restaurants have been mandated to take out only, meaning an increased use of single use containers and plastics. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the new way of life may affect the world around us.

So what do all of these changes mean when looking at the environmental impact – both today and in the future? Well a lot of those answers will depend on how people choose to live during this time of great uncertainty.

Recycling

According to the EPA, “recycling benefits the environment by reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators; conserves natural resources; and prevents pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials.”

On Wednesday, the Peterborough Recycling Center announced several temporary changes to its operations in order to protect its employees and the public from the threat of COVID-19. Household recyclables, like cardboard, paper, and plastics will now be disposed of in the residential solid waste trash compactor. Patrons will not be required to bag those materials, and can just dispose of their recyclables in the compactor in a loose manner.

The thought of residents going through the process of sorting their materials, only to throw away in the trash is hard for Peterborough Recycling Center Manager Scott Bradford to think about.

“This is killing me. Now it’s all going into a landfill,” Bradford said. “I want to see it stay out of the landfill and be recycled as much as humanly possible.”

What would be an ideal situation is that residents hold on to their recyclable materials until the changes are lifted, but Bradford knows that is not always possible due to space limitations.

“I think a lot of people will with Peterborough being very green,” he said.

There’s no fault for those people needing to dispose of their recyclables in the waste stream, just one of the trickle down effects of the pandemic that is necessary for the safety of all involved.

Glass, household batteries, electronics, and light bulbs will continue to be accepted for recycling at the facility as of now. It is asked that if items like furniture and appliances can be stored for disposal at a later date, residents consider doing so.

“We’re still accepting things we don’t have to touch,” Bradford said. “It’s just the basic recycling that we have to handle. You don’t know what’s all over those plastic bottles people throw in.”

Bradford said on average they bring on 60 to 65 tons of recycling each month. Two extra dumpsters will be set up in anticipation of more waste being brought in.

In Jaffrey, DPW Director Randy Heglin said that until further notice all household recyclable materials are to be disposed of in the compactor along with household trash, including cardboard, paper board, mixed paper, glass, cans and all plastics.

“We source separate, so we handle each recyclable that comes in the facility,” he said.

Heglin added that the coronavirus lives on plastics for up to three days and 24 hours for cardboard. With items going directly into the compactor it decreases the opportunities for exposure.

“We are baling it almost immediately, and the very least within 24 hours,” Heglin said.

Heglin said the feedback hasn’t been positive about the changes, but it was a decision they had to make. And he’s not real happy about the ramifications the changes will make.

“People have gotten into the mode of recycling and I hope we don’t go back on that habit,” Heglin said. “And we don’t want to see it on the side of the road either.”

At the Bennington Transfer Station, all recycling, with the exception of paper and cardboard, has been suspended until further notice. Residents are asked to dispose of recyclables in the compactor along with household waste.

The latest Recycling Economic Information Report found that, in a single year, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenues. This equates to 1.57 jobs, $76,000 in wages and $14,101 in tax revenues for every 1,000 tons of material recycled.

Take Out

With restaurant dining areas closed off due to an order by the State of New Hampshire, the only remaining option for business opportunities is take out.

That means more containers, utensils and paper goods are going out the door, and if they aren’t made with recyclable materials, that’s a lot more waste going into landfills.

Many restaurants have adapted to provide less single use plastics, but it hasn’t been a clear consensus across the board and the uptick in orders going to people’s homes means more chances it will end up being thrown away instead of plates and silverware being washed at the restaurant.

One way to combat the increase in the waste stream is for consumers to hang on to whatever is recyclable and reuse any containers that can be. For restaurants and bars, there’s an ability to send less packaging out the door with a few simple questions. If people are eating at home, which most likely they are given the state of the country, they likely don’t need utensils and napkins.

Wastewater

With disinfecting wipes and paper towels flying off the shelves to be used around the house whenever possible, Heglin said it’s important that people remember that those items cannot be flushed down the toilet.

“It will create a real problem for the wastewater system,” Heglin said.

While Jaffrey has not seen any issues as of late last week, Heglin said if residents don’t follow the “three-Ps only” rule – basically, only urine, feces and toilet paper – that it could have major impacts, like potentially clogging up pumps.

“People are using a lot more of them than they used to,” Heglin said.

Spotted salamander

For the last 13 years Brett Amy Thelen, science director at the Harris Center in Hancock, has spent a portion of her March coordinating the Salamander Crossing Brigades. She typically hosts a couple of workshops to train volunteers to not only help salamanders make their way across darkened roads at known crossing points on rainy night, but how to stay safe doing it.

Year 14 will be remembered much differently. Thelen canceled all trainings and is hoping that only experienced volunteers who know the proper safety measures needed to be on the roads at night participate – and only in ways that promote social distancing and keep groups at a minimum.

In past years, when Thelen has sent out a salamander forecast, people show up in large numbers to help the four-legged amphibians, which is typically the goal.

“I’m concerned about people getting together to do this and that’s usually the model for it,” Thelen said. “I don’t feel in good conscience asking people to do that this year.”

Thelen said that many crossings are manned by just a single family, which is okay considering that is the group people are spending all their time with, but asks that people make a conscious decision to leave if groups start to form.

If people do go out on those classic spring nights – 45 degrees and rainy – Thelen stressed the importance of taking the proper precautions to have a safety vest and flashlights for each person.

Last year, Thelen said there were 250 volunteers and 75 people had signed up the trainings this month. And while helping salamanders to safety is something Thelen is passionate about, it’s clear the health and well being of the people around her take priority.

One bright spot for Thelen is that with so many places closed and events canceled, she expects less cars on the roads at night, which make it easier for salamanders to get to where they need to go on their own.

“I think there will be positive environmental consequences and negative consequences,” Thelen said. “On a rainy night, where are people going? So if you think about it, the salamanders may stand a better chance.”

For more, visit harriscenter.org.


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