New study to assess how COVID has impacted waste sector and its workforce

A new study to investigate how COVID-19 has affected the UK waste sector has been launched.

The 18-month research project will explore the impact of the pandemic, which has transformed household waste into a potential biohazard and poses new risks to workers who collect, sort and dispose of waste materials.

Figures from Health and Safety Executive reveal that this workforce already faces significant occupational hazards, with higher fatalities in comparison to other UK sectors prior to the pandemic.

A team of experts will work on the project, including Dr Thom Davies, in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham; Dr Angeliki Balayannis, Professor Steve Hinchliffe and Dr Phillip J Nicholson from the University of Exeter; Dr Toni Gladding from the Open University; and Dr Emma Garnett from King’s College London.

The group, led by Dr Angeliki Balayannis, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Exeter, will work in partnership with local authorities and industry associations, including the Waste Industry Safety and Health forum (WISH), to examine how waste management processes and practices are changing as a result of the pandemic.

The team will interview workers on the frontline as well as waste industry leaders and stakeholders.

Dr Thom Davies, in Nottingham’s School of Geography, has previously conducted research in places impacted by petrochemical and nuclear waste, such as ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana and the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone in Ukraine.

Dr Davies said: “We know that coronaviruses persist on materials that people regularly dispose of in their domestic waste. On plastics and stainless steel surfaces, COVID-19 can survive for well over 72 hours. This potentially places workers at higher risk.

The waste industry plays a vital and often-overlooked role in everyone’s lives. It is really important to understand how it is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Angeliki Balayannis said: “The pandemic has brought the labour of key workers such as NHS staff to light but waste workers are often disregarded.

“Our project is working with the people who maintain a critical – but often invisible – part of our infrastructure.”

The project aims to design a pandemic toolkit with workers to support action and decision-making, and help build future preparedness. It will generate urgent data on changing waste management processes, including collections, disposal, and administration;

The project has been awarded a grant by the Economic and Social Research Council through UKRI Ideas to Address COVID-19.

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