This week marks the 17th annual Recycle Week organised by WRAP under the Recycle Now brand. This year’s awareness week is looking back over 2020 as it celebrates the UK’s commitment to keeping recycling going during the coronavirus pandemic.

While most of us saw some kind of changes to our waste collection services, the week will celebrate the job of key frontline waste workers in continuing to help us recycle under the banner, “Together – We Recycle”.

Changes to waste management during lockdown

At the start of the coronavirus restrictions earlier this year, the collection of waste and recyclable materials was subject to suspensions or delayed services across Scotland. People were being asked to store their own plastic and glass items until services could resume. I received lots of messages from people asking for advice because their bins and sheds were becoming full with no future collection dates in sight.

This very short term solution to our waste problem was less workable in town and cities where people were living in flats with less space and with often no access to sheds or garages to store their uncollected recyclable materials. This led to people having to put items such as plastic, glass or paper out in their normal waste bin which would be sent to landfill because they simply did not have any room to store it with them in their houses.

While we won’t know the scale of this problem until Scotland’s waste and recycling figures from 2020 are released next year, this crisis has shown us that we need strong contingency plans in place to ensure our waste and recyclable materials can be disposed of properly during any future pandemics.

Protect our key workers 

It’s vital that we make sure that all frontline workers, like those who work in waste collection services, are protected. UNISON and other trade unions have been campaigning to improve safety for waste workers after concerning reports about social distancing protocol and a lack of PPE equipment in some local authority areas.

UNISON found that while some councils had reduced crew numbers on vehicles, lots were still using three crew members per vehicle which meant that social distancing was impossible as people were sitting shoulder to shoulder next to each other.

Not only does this and the lack of PPE post a health risk to workers, but waste services would be even more restricted or could stop altogether if staff were to catch coronavirus and need to self-isolate.

That’s why they have been calling for two people maximum in the cab (and preferably just one), regular deep cleans, hand sanitiser and the provision of protective gloves.

Recycle Week is right to celebrate the work that our waste collection services have done, but let’s acknowledge the lessons we’ve learned during this time. We must put plans in place to ensure our waste service workers, like other key workers, are given the protection they need to carry out their jobs both safely and efficiently.

As part of our Just and Green Recovery campaign for Scotland, we are campaigning to make sure the voices of our key workers are heard as we build back to a fairer economy. You can find out more about our Just and Green Recovery work here.

Read about why recycling alone isn’t enough to tackle the climate crisis