Your Village: How is Iowa City recycling adapting to COVID-19?

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Iowa City’s 65-gallon recycling cart (with blue lid). — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Have there been any changes to Iowa City’s recycling program to protect workers from COVID-19? —Anonymous, Iowa City, via the Your Village feature on LV’s homepage

The people working in Iowa City’s recycling program have always had to take the sort of precautions the rest of us are now having to think about. It’s just the nature of the work—you have to be careful when handling items other people have thrown away.

“Our staff have full access to personal protective equipment,” said Jane Wilch, recycling coordinator for Iowa City. “We take that seriously anyway, but even more so now with the pandemic.”

Like other city facilities, the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center closed to the general public on March 18, as part of the city’s attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. It didn’t fully reopen until May 18, and when it did, customers were encouraged to practice social distancing and use credit and debit cards instead of cash to limit contact with the staff. The Eastside Recycling Center remained open, but its Environmental Education Center closed. The city’s curbside recycling program kept going as usual.

“Waste is an essential service, so we’ve worked very hard to keep our curbside collections operating,” Wilch said. But because of COVID-19, and all the uncertainties regarding how long the virus can survive on various surfaces, there’s been an increased focus on making sure workers don’t have contact with the items being picked up curbside.

“Using the program correctly is really important right now,” Wilch explained. “It ensures that our staff can collect items efficiently and helps reduce contact between materials and curbside staff.”

“Any time there’s the wrong type of material in a cart, or if a lid isn’t closed, or it’s overflowing, all of a sudden we have a situation where our staff have to be in more contact with the waste material.”

When the carts are used properly, workers don’t even have to touch them. The recycling program trucks have automated arms that can lift carts and empty them.

The same is true for the city’s organic waste collection. Proper use of those carts is also important to limit contact between the materials and workers, and the automated arm on the truck can be used to empty the cart.

“We do still offer and accept personal containers and paper yard waste bags, just because not everybody has a city cart,” Wilch added.

The changes caused by the pandemic aren’t limited to how items are being collected, they’re also seen in what is being collected.

“Waste represents our behaviors and what we do on a daily basis,” Wilch said. “At the landfill, and at landfills across the state, we’re observing changes in the waste-stream. Anything that has to do with online shopping or takeout meals, and sanitation and public health — all of those types of materials we’ve seen an increase in.”

But some of those now more common items can’t be recycled.

“Any sort of personal protective equipment cannot be recycled,” Wilch said. “Face masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes, tissues should all go into the regular trash.”

And as for the regular trash, the landfill is asking everyone to bag their trash to prevent spills when it is being collected and help limit the contact workers have with it.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 282.

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