Minimising waste to demonstrate our gratitude

Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, writes on why we all need to celebrate and support our binmen and binwomen in their vital role as resource managers on the frontline during the coronavirus outbreak.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, waste for many people was largely out of sight and out of mind. The people emptying our bins are typically as invisible to the public as the waste and recycling itself.

Now our binmen and binwomen – and everyone else who handles all our waste and recycling – are getting some long-overdue praise and recognition for the vital work they do keeping our nation going.

Notwithstanding our heroic doctors, nurses and careworkers, I would argue that bin collection staff deserve just as much applause as other key workers such as bus drivers, police and supermarket staff for keeping on working during the crisis.

The term binman does not come close to doing justice to what the job is really about, especially now that we have all fully embraced a more resource-focused approach to our waste which favours reuse and recycling over landfill. Like farmers and fishermen, refuse collectors are skilled resource managers, out in all weathers harvesting materials for the growing circular supply chain which feeds the national and global economy.

Waste collections and the staff who carry them out are going through serious changes and challenges on our behalf. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, it’s important that we all do everything we can to manage waste, so we don’t make the current crisis any worse.

Clapping is great for morale, but by far the most valuable thing anyone can do to show their appreciation and help the refuse collectors on the frontline is to produce as little waste as possible.

Most recycling and other waste collection services across Scotland and the rest of the UK have been affected in some way. This has been necessary to deal with the impact of staff shortages through sickness while prioritising and protecting the health of workers and public alike in line with government guidance on implementing social isolation measures.

Waste poses a serious health risk in normal times if it is allowed to pile up, as councils and waste management firms will know all too well. To help mitigate these risks Zero Waste Scotland – along with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Scottish Government – has launched a campaign to let householders across Scotland know about changes to their waste collections so they can manage and dispose of their waste as safely as possible.

Much of this campaign builds on our existing work with local authorities, helping them to provide the simplest, most effective recycling services. We are giving householders practical advice on how they can reduce their waste during the lockdown, including simple tips on planning meals and making better use of storage to reduce food waste.

Unfortunately, we have seen a rise in flytipping around the country north and south of the border that is likely to have been caused by the rise in DIY projects and clearouts. The advice to anyone with unwanted goods is to store them safely at home or in the garden.

Our campaign has also urged people to be wary of fraudsters posing as legitimate waste disposal businesses. People should not to be taken in by cheap deals – services that sound too good to be true often are.

The public is also being urged not to leave unwanted clothes outside charity shops while they are closed during lockdown as these donations may be damaged by bad weather which means they can’t be resold, and charities often have to pay to get rid of them.

The more people we reach with the current public health message on waste, the more we can ease the pressure on staff and services to manage the pandemic and recover as quickly as possible.

Like the curve in cases of the disease itself which NHS workers on the frontline in healthcare are working so hard to flatten, every employee working in recycling and street collections is battling against the risk of a mountain of waste. We all need to do what we can to flatten that too.

We will get through this by continuing to work together to deal with the challenges and changes that coronavirus brings.

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