The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot. We’re working from home when possible. We’re social distancing. Some are wearing masks whether it’s a state mandate or not. We’re getting curbside meals rather than eating out. We’re staying home more, ordering online more, and creating more trash and recycling than before.

These new habits have impacted a lot. One area that cities and towns are seeing incredible impact is with recycling. Due to COVID-19, some districts are slashing recycling programs. What impact is this going to have on our lives and the environment?

Why Are Districts Limiting or Stopping Recycling Programs?

People are still learning new things about COVID-19. At first, masks were not helpful, but that changed as time went on. It was said that those with underlying health conditions or the elderly would be the ones facing the highest risk, but some healthy, younger adults died from the virus. People were testing negative while having the virus, which increased the spread. While the nation tries to stop the outbreak, if that’s even possible, some recycling centers have reopened. Others remain closed or operate with restrictions.

When the COVID-19 pandemic heated up and states ordered non-essential workers to stay home, some wondered if recycling counted as an essential business. In some areas, it was determined that trash was essential, but questions remained on how recycling was classified. Some haulers and waste districts limited recycling to plastics while others stopped picking up anything more than trash.

Workers wondered if the virus could remain on surfaces hours or days after people placed them in a recycling bin. Some workers had the virus and couldn’t go to work. Reduced workforces played a part in limiting or stopping recycling programs.

Another aspect causing a tremendous impact on recycling programs are city and town budgets. In Aspen, Colorado, cardboard recycling had to be stopped due to budget cuts. Due to the pandemic, the city had to find ways to cut budgets in each department by at least 8%. For Aspen, that meant cutting the $150,000 contract for cardboard recycling. All cardboard now goes to the trash.

While they haven’t decided yet, Columbia, Missouri, plans to vote to see what voters think of ending curbside recycling. The city lacks enough staff to keep up with the program that was started in the 1990s. If it passes, they estimate they can save close to $2 million.

Nags Head, North Carolina, is experiencing the same woes. Curbside recycling ended on May 18th. The problems started long before the pandemic, however. When China stopped accepting and processing recycling from the U.S. in 2018, towns like Nags Head that had never paid a penny for recycling were suddenly paying up to $70 per ton.

Vermont’s been pretty lucky when it comes to keeping the virus outbreaks to a minimum. One of the first things to shut down was recycling drop-off centers. Staffing issues and shutdowns of non-essential businesses factored into the decision. A few centers reopened in mid-May, but others remain closed. Those that did reopen limit what materials are accepted and how much you can bring to the recycling center. Materials like old mattresses, furniture, and construction materials are not accepted. E-waste is restricted to no more than seven items per day. Scrap metal must be small pieces that you can lift over the four-foot container’s edge on your own. Staff members are not allowed to help people unload their cars into the appropriate bins or areas.

Changes to typical patterns are also impacting recycling in other ways. As people stayed home from work, they started killing time by cleaning out their homes and decluttering. That increased the amount of trash being generated by each household. People are also avoiding stores and shopping online. This boosts the amount of cardboard being recycled each week. In Philadelphia, waste and recycling districts had to start trashing a percentage of recycling in order to keep up with the increase in trash. Cape Cod has seen a 20% increase in recycling volumes and are running out of room.

What Are Your Alternatives?

If you can’t recycle things, what are your options? What are the alternatives to recycling while the pandemic continues to affect your day-to-day life? If any curbside recycling or drop-off recycling is offered in your district, find out what the current options are. You might be able to recycle some items, which is better than nothing.

Compost as much as you can. Cut up brown cardboard and mix that in with vegetable and fruit scraps. You can also compost coffee grounds, unbleached paper towels and napkins, paper plates that are not coated, and shredded paper that isn’t coated. As the compost breaks down with heat and moisture, it will break down into nutrient-rich soil that you can add to your gardens.

In districts that are currently eliminating recycling of furniture and mattresses, they suggest breaking items down on your own. Cut the fabric off your mattresses. Toss away the fabric and foam if your district doesn’t offer fabric recycling. Recycle the metal springs. Recycle or compost any wood or cardboard from the box spring. Do the same with your sofas and chairs. Remove the material and foam for trash or recycling and compost or recycle the metal springs and scrap wood. Clean, chemical-free scrap wood is also good for kindling in outdoor fire pits and grills.

If you have furniture that is in good shape but has stained or worn fabric, consider trying your hand at reupholstering. You could change the fabric, boost the foam padding if needed, and sell the like-new furniture to someone in need of a new sofa or chair.

Upcycle as much as possible and sell it to others. That broken or worn bookshelf could be repaired, refinished, or repurposed. You could take an old steamer trunk and turn it into a storage ottoman with a pillow-top. Replace the broken glass on an old fish tank with a mirror or sheet of plexiglass and turn the tank into a terrarium. If you’ve ever caught the TV show “Flea Market Flip,” you’ll have an idea of the different ways people have repurposed old bookshelves, dressers, ladders, orange crates, etc.

Ask if others need your older items. If you were making beer but stopped drinking, another homebrewer may be willing to buy your empty beer bottles. Someone may be preparing to move to a new home or apartment and need moving boxes. The skid that your wood pellets or new stove came on may be desirable to someone looking for clean wood for a campfire. You may want it for lighting your charcoal grill or patio fire pit. Make sure the wood isn’t treated with chemicals before you burn it.

We’re happy to help you find the best ways to recycle your items. Whether you have a box of glass jars to recycle or an old mattress, use our directory to quickly learn about your options. Recycle Nation is here to make it easier to find the best ways to reuse or recycle your household goods. All you need to do is choose the item from the list, enter your ZIP, and wait for the results.