Even as the post-holiday waste stream hits its zenith, the pandemic left collectors short-staffed, leading to a backlog the region is still trying to process.
Residents have been left holding the bag – literally – for an extra day or two as workers were delayed in picking up the trash, the result of illness and mandatory isolation periods.
“Waste management has also been hit, like so many other businesses and so many other services with the impacts of Omicron on our staffing levels. It was a challenge for sure last week. We’ve seen this in other sectors. We’ve seen it in long-term care and childcare, but now it’s starting to reach down to us,” Kathleen Barsoum, Waterloo Region’s waste management coordinator, said this week.
“I think sometimes people forget that our collectors still have to go out and start work at 7 a.m. – they’re usually on site by 6:30, and it’s not like they can work from home.”
While the operation was running with full crews this week, Barsoum noted it’s possible for more delays in the future if more workers have to isolate, which is likely as the number of active cases continues to climb.
“Last week was particularly tough. They did bring in the collection crews that were there, though we’re working very long hours – they’re working 12-hour shifts. They also brought in extra trucks and crews from other areas to help to help with the collection. So they were able to get caught up – it took working Saturday as well.”
The period after the holidays typically means extra work as the amount of waste increases, everything from wrapping to Christmas trees. This year, there’s a plethora of cardboard.
“It comes just at a peak level of waste. Right now, we are having higher than normal seasonal amount. Cardboard particularly is quite high. We do see an increase in online shopping, we have since the beginning as a matter of fact,” noted Barsoum. “With cardboard, we’re asking residents to break down the cardboard boxes, the whole box just doesn’t fit into the hopper of the truck.”
To keep up with holiday waste, the region doubled garbage days for residents the first week in January and will do so again next week, starting January 17. They also collect Christmas trees across the region that gets ground up and composted. Christmas tree collection in the townships ends this week.
“We’re running the special Christmas tree collections. We dedicate trucks just to pick up Christmas trees. We do that so that the trees don’t go to landfill, we actually use those trees for composting. So what we’re asking residents to do with their Christmas tree is to make sure it doesn’t have the plastic wrapped around it. Take off the lights and take off the stands. We get a surprising number of stamps come through, just keep the tree as natural as possible. Leave it at the curb, so the dedicated truck can pick it up. That makes beautiful compost.”
The weather has been another hurdle, with high winds being particularly troublesome, blowing over bins and scattering the contents of blue boxes.
In that vein, Barsoum suggests residents crush the plastic down with their foot as much as possible or bring the bins inside if pickup is delayed.
The best way for township residents to know if waste collection has been delayed in their area is check on the region’s waste management social media channels. Anyone who has been missed for waste pickup or has a collection issue can go to regionofwaterloo.ca/waste and fill in a form. Barsoum said crews will work double shifts or try to get to it the next day if pickup is delayed.
They’ve seen a slight increase in the amount of overall waste being collected since the start of the pandemic two years ago. The majority of increase is in food containers in blue bins or food waste in green bins, as many have been working from home. Compared to other cities, the region has a very high percentage of blue box material collected.
“We do see an increased volume of green bin, which is really fabulous. I mean we love the more that we can divert from landfills. Everything you put in the blue box and put in the green bin is recycled and is reused. We’re very fortunate in our area – we have 90 to 95 per cent of all the collected blue box material that does get recycled. We have an astounding recycling program, diversion programs and honestly we can thank the residents for that, they do such a good job on sorting what goes into the blue box in the first place,” said Barsoum.
Right now, the major issue is the Omicron variant that has seen absenteeism increase, as with other sectors.
“We were not immune from it. We definitely didn’t feel it for a while, but I think last week, they definitely had a lot come down and I don’t know where it’s going to end. We may see impacts. Anytime that they have any type of staff absenteeism due to COVID-related isolation, it can impact collections, so, please have patience with us. They’ve got the extra crews now and so it won’t be as bad as last week, but it’s hard to predict.”