Pandemic-related trash causes waste increases, sewer problems

By: Jonathan Shead, Zachary Manning | C&G Newspapers | Published April 23, 2021

 Remnants of disposable wipes and other debris sit after being raked from higher sections of the giant bar screen at the Northeast Sewage Pumping Station in Detroit.

Remnants of disposable wipes and other debris sit after being raked from higher sections of the giant bar screen at the Northeast Sewage Pumping Station in Detroit.

Photo provided by Macomb County Public Works Office


OAKLAND COUNTY — You may have noticed it walking around your neighborhoods, parks and local businesses. A surge of disposable, non-recyclable products such as surgical face masks, latex gloves and disposable cleaning wipes has contributed to increases in litter and potential environmental damage.

“There is a little increase in litter, at least that’s what I’ve seen anecdotally,” Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority General Manager Jeff McKeen said, adding that SOCRRA has seen about a 10% increase in waste coming from the organization’s member communities. “Some things are not being disposed of properly, and that’s a side effect of the pandemic, obviously, and everybody not disposing of everything properly.”

Local sidewalks and landfills aren’t the only spaces dealing with some potential consequences that have come from an increase in the use of disposable products. This pandemic trash has also caused issues for the region’s waterways, the state’s recycling industry and, ultimately, the business supply chain.

“When it comes to disposables, it’s important to make sure you dispose of those things properly. With masks, we encourage reusable masks, and if you do use disposable masks, make sure it makes it into a trash bin. We see disposable masks on the ground, sidewalks, gas stations. Same thing with latex gloves. Make sure those go into trash bins,” Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Public Information Officer Jill Greenberg said.

She added that people shouldn’t be fooled by disposable wipes that claim to be flushable.

“It’s just best to not tempt fate and put those in the trash,” Greenberg said.


Increases and improper disposal
SOCRRA isn’t the only waste management and recycling company that has seen increases in the amount of trash being thrown away. Waste Management Area Director of Government Affairs and Communications for Michigan, Ohio and Indiana Tanisha Sanders said they continue to see “elevated” waste levels from residential communities.

“We do see waste on the residential side continuing to be elevated,” Sanders said. “Litter, I think that’s certainly always something we look to encourage customers and businesses to control. We all play a role in helping to be a good aid to the environment and control litter.”

As residential trash levels have increased over the past year, however, commercial- and manufacturing-related trash has shown the biggest decline for companies like Waste Management. As states halted construction work in line with several stay-at-home-related orders, Sanders said, much of that trash capacity shifted to residents’ homes, where they were now working.

Despite marginal increases in waste, neither McKeen or Sanders said they’re worried by the rise in levels.

“Michigan is blessed with a lot of landfill capacity, so we don’t anticipate any problems on that front, either,” McKeen said. “It’s had a much bigger effect on our colleagues on the sewer side of the business. … They’ve had some really serious problems, specifically with the wipes.”

A press release sent out April 1 stating that disposable wipes were “wreaking having” on the sewer pipes and pump stations across Oakland and Macomb counties. Prior to the pandemic, around 1,000 pounds of wipes were being flushed down the toilet each week, but as stay-at-home orders were put in place, that number jumped to roughly 4,000 pounds per week.

“In early 2018, approximately 70 tons of debris that had accumulated over a period of three years was removed from the Northeast Sewage Pumping Station in Detroit. Three years later, a crew that recently completed a cleaning removed approximately 270 tons of debris,” Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said in the press release.

It took cleanup crews more than six weeks, and the two counties spent approximately $450,000 to clear the buildup of wipes on the sewer grates. The Northeast Sewage Pumping Station serves 23 communities across the two counties. Roughly 800,000 residents contribute to the pumping station, Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said.

Nash said he believes some of those troubling numbers have started to go down as people return to offices and as his office works to spread greater public awareness. Nash said flushing dental floss down the toilet can also cause major issues.

“That’s a lot of people, and it doesn’t take much from each individual to really count up. It doesn’t take long. When people were home that first three months, that was a real hit to the systems. It’s come back from that initial blow. I think it’s started to slow up,” he said. “Normally, it would take several months, and our normal cleaning regimen would keep it clean enough, but that was a big increase.”

Backups caused by these disposable wipes and other non-flushable items don’t just impact the two counties’ sewage systems, Nash explained. Rather, they usually cause more damage to residents’ systems and, thus, more damage to the environment directly around us.

“Whenever there’s issues around that system, it causes backups. It could go into homes. It could spill out onto the surface of the sidewalks. It could affect waterways, and that’s significant. That’s something we have to clean up right away, and it’s a process we go through for that, too, and it all costs money,” Nash said. “There’s always consequences that affect the environment, and it’s generally the environment right around us. Eventually, it gets taken to the Great Lakes, but mostly it affects us right in our neighborhoods, so that’s where we have to watch out.”

For the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County, the new personal protective equipment isn’t a huge part of their contamination, but it is still a cause for concern.

“It’s like less than 1% of our contamination that comes in, but it’s something for us to be concerned about because, one, it’s just another thing that we don’t want, another new problem, but we also have heightened concerns about worker safety and worker health,” RRRASOC General Manager Mike Csapo said. “Exposure to medical waste and discarded personal protective equipment is something that is obviously high on our list of concerns.”

Though it is only around 1% of materials, it still makes things harder on RRRASOC in terms of sorting through the materials. Most, if not all, PPE equipment is supposed to go in the trash and is not recyclable.

Csapo said masks and other small PPE materials can be hard to identify in a large set of recycled materials, which increases the chance of missing these types of things.

People unsure of what can go into recycling bins can visit the RRRASOC website at or call (248) 208-2270.

“Anything that gets put into the carts that’s not recyclable is something that we’re obviously concerned about. It creates potential safety issues; depending on what it is, it can cause damage to the equipment,” Csapo said. “At the very least, these contamination items require us to make sure that we’re working harder and smarter to ensure that we’re sending quality products out the door that doesn’t include contamination.”


Reduce, reuse, recycle
According to Greenberg, recycling right now is one impactful way Michiganders can reduce waste, decrease litter and help the business supply chain in their state.

“Right now, recycling is more important than ever, especially when talking about really supporting the supply chain. An example of that is recycled paper. I think it’s like more than 75% of tissue paper is made of recycled paper. We’ve got a plant right here in northern Michigan, in Cheboygan, that manufactures toilet paper, and that goes back to people in the state. That’s one example of how we can actually be part of the solution,” she said.

The same can be said for cardboard boxes, Greenberg explained.

“A lot of people are ordering things online, specifically, let’s say, through Amazon, and a lot of those products come in cardboard boxes. It’s really important for us to recycle those boxes, make sure they’re clean, and make sure we’re breaking them down flat so they go through. Those products are then recycled, and they do go back out to be made into cardboard boxes again. That reduces the amount of original product that’s entered into the process.”

With Michigan recycling rates ranking as the lowest in the Great Lakes region and one of the lowest in the nation, at 15%, Greenberg said EGLE is working hard to promote proper recycling and waste disposal.

“If we increase especially clean recycling that gets to the end, that significantly reduces what ends up in the landfills. It’s multipronged. We want to reduce the impact on landfills, and we want it to go into the marketplace, which also builds a vibrant economy, and also builds jobs,” she said. “All these things are positive outcomes of following best practices when it comes to recycling. I think that’s one way to have an impact on climate.”

As the heart of the Great Lakes region, Greenberg said, Michigan has a lot to deal with and a lot to protect when it comes to the environment.

“Our goal, obviously, is we don’t want things to get worse. That’s why we’re here and why we take the actions we do, whether that’s through education outreach, or compliance and enforcement action,” she said. “Increased and dedicated recycling efforts do have an impact on reducing climate change impacts.”