One of the many victims of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be Portugal’s nascent progress in recycling waste, environmental campaigners say.
Portugal, which recycles around 28% of its urban refuse, below the European average of 46%, EU figures show, has long been a laggard. It had begun to improve its green credentials. But a lockdown in mid-March to contain the novel coronavirus brought measures that have halted recycling while increasing the use of materials such as plastic.
The environment ministry said a drop in the collection of recyclable waste had been reported, although it did not give figures. Environmental engineer Diogo Oliveira said the impact on waste was unavoidable. “People are worried about their health, not about where the trash goes,” he said.
In Lisbon and other cities, door-to-door collection of paper, plastics and glass was suspended to reduce the risk of contagion among waste workers in case people infected threw away contaminated waste, such as masks and gloves.
Along with instructions to use additional bags and gloves, signs put up by the mayor’s office at the doorways of apartment buildings told residents to stop separating trash and put it all in the same bin.
Across the country, urban waste is now sent directly to incineration or landfills without any prior sorting, again as a way to protect workers’ health in case rubbish bags break.
Those in Lisbon and elsewhere who wish to continue to recycle must use designated recycling bins and when collected, the trash is quarantined before being sorted. Meanwhile, the lockdown has generated extra waste.
Portuguese restaurants, for instance, were allowed to operate only takeaway services, mainly using disposable products, to deliver food.
The measures holding back recycling remain in place and will do so for as long as deemed necessary, the environment ministry said.
Carmen Lima, coordinator at the environmental group Quercus, said many customers may continue to ask for their meals and drinks to be served in disposable plates and cups even after restaurants and coffee shops reopen on May 18.
“We felt there was a change in people’s behaviour last year – but it will get worse again,” Lima said. “It breaks my heart.”