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Continuity of waste management service during COVID-19 crisis ensured, but liquidity under a threat

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The first of the NALAS Online Discussion Series in Solid Waste Management during COVID-19 crisis was held on 20 May 2020, with over 50 participants. The discussion focused on analising waste management operations during the pandemics, starting from waste collection, through transport and treatment to disposal.

The discussion was moderated by Miodrag Gluščević, Programme Director at the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities of Serbia and a host of NALAS Task Force on Solid Waste and Water Management.

The expert panel included:

  • Thomas Nylund, Former CEO of „Gästrike återvinnare” Regional PUC for Waste Management, Sweden
  • Danijela Đurović, Deputy Mayor, City of Herceg Novi, Montenegro
  • Željko Aćimović, Economic Affairs Manager, PUC „Gradsa čistoća“ Belgrade, Serbia

During the discussion, the panelists assessed the implications of the virus threat on one hand, and preventive measures and movement restrictions, on the other. They covered issues related to the organisation of services, changes in quantities and morphology of waste, and how it affects pickup routs and the number of collection stations. They also touched upon the effects of the crisis on the source separation, recycling and treatment of waste, and possible changing of the waste and recycling targets. Finally, they shed light on the very serious issue of liquidity of the waste operators due to the drop in the collection rates and increased operational expenditures.

The general perception of the audience was that the waste management service functioned without delay and interference, and for that to happen, numerous measures in the organisation of operations had to be implemented,  noted the panelists.

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In Sweden the collection of household waste as municipal responsibility was given a high priority during the coronavirus crisis for sanitary reasons. It is classified as a critical societal operation and appropriate crisis planning was done to ensure continuity of service under the specific conditions. The crisis planning also included prioritisation of collection points in case of lack of capacity, such as housing areas with a dense population. When it comes to recycling yards or centers for bulky waste were opened in usual hours but with some limitations regarding visitors at the same time to avoid crowds.

Customer information was very important for waste management operations. Instructions  to close garbage bags properly with double knots, or not to overfill the bins, nor to throw garbage on the ground were communicated to customers in Sweden. Messages from the central government like a call for the citizens to stay at home if they feel sick, to use gloves and keep distances and avoid the peak hours were redistributed by PUC.

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Montenegro reacted promptly to respond to the pandemics. From the PUCs it was demanded to keep the operations running, but also introduce additional prevention measues, such as disinfection of garbage trucks, bins, and equipment using chlorin based solutions prescribed by the WHO. The number of pick up points and frequency were reduced. Ensuring sufficient workforce was one of the main issues for PUCs since some of the staff was quaranteened. Waste collected in Herceg Novi dropped by 20%. Disinfection of public areas and street cleaning were more frequent, so other services like the rescue had to step in with the humanpower and equipment.

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The economic measures introduced by the central level in many cases included delayed payment of utility bills and subsidies for vulnerable categories, which affected the liquidity of PUCs and put waste management operations under additional pressure. In the City of Belgrade, Serbia, the PUC “Gradska Cistoca” is part of the collective billing system where one of the measures was a delay of payments for elderly citizens above 65 years of age for February, March, and April 2020 with no interest rate for the company. Also, no force collection was conducted during the stage of an emergency. Regular discounts for on-time payments stayed in force and no charges were introduced for late payments. The decline in the collection rate for “Gradska Cistoca” was 11%, but in Serbia overall it was much higher. The biggest decline was from the business sector. In the short run operations were managed, but in the long run that would be very hard.

In Belgrade, a rotation was introduced to ensure sufficient healthy workforce. The drop of primary selection was notable and, in some cases, it went up to 57%. The critical factor for the waste management services is acquiring materials and goods from abroad and limited storage space for the recyclables. The recommendation is to rely more on local producers.

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