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Rubbish collection has been delayed in some Melbourne municipalities due to COVID-19 staff shortages as the waste industry warns services could grind to a halt if collectors who are deemed close contacts are not allowed to work.
Moreland and Monash councils have both reported delays of up to 24 hours to garbage, recycling and organics collection as the waste sector reports almost one-third of staff are isolating at any time. It’s expected other councils are also experiencing delays.
The waste management industry wants national cabinet to exempt its workers from isolating when they are deemed a close contact of a COVID-19 case.Credit:Joe Armao
Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia chief executive Gayle Sloan said the industry was already at a point of prioritising services, with at least one company working on Saturdays to make up for missed collections during the week.
“We think it’s a matter of weeks, if not days, that we are going to be at a point where we just can’t fulfil services to the level we need to,” she said.
“Services [risk] being ground to a halt. If this were to happen, Australia will face significant environmental and hygiene issues.”
The association wants national cabinet to exempt its workers from isolating when they are deemed a close contact of a COVID-19 case, so long as they are asymptomatic and return a negative rapid antigen test.
However, many companies do not have the required tests and the association is also calling for the industry to be given a priority supply.
“The same flexibility that is safely awarded to other essential industries must also be provided to front-line [waste collection] workers,” Ms Sloan said.
Australia’s biggest rubbish collection company, Cleanaway, reports being heavily affected by truck driver shortages as a result of the pandemic.
“At any day we could have up to 150 employees isolating,” a spokesman said. “This is significantly impacting our ability to deliver essential services. If the number of drivers in isolation continues to rise, there will be major disruptions to our municipal collections.”
Cleanaway also collects clinical waste from hospitals and testing and vaccination centres. “It is vital that the waste is collected in these settings for their continued operations,” the spokesman said.
He said worker shortages could also result in more recycling being diverted to landfill if processing facilities are forced to close.
The Australian Workers’ Union represents waste workers. Victorian vice-president Ben Davis said while he did not support workers being exempt from isolation rules, due to health and safety concerns, he conceded the rules needed to be consistent.
“We’re saddened and disappointed that we’re surrendering to Omicron across the board,” he said. “[But] if they’re changing it for the food supply chain, if they’re changing it for transport, if they’re changing it for construction, etc, etc, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t change it for waste management.”
Mr Davis said the real issue was the lack of rapid antigen tests needed to keep waste workers who came into contact with the coronavirus safe.
“The working people, yet again, are paying the price for government inaction and incompetence,” he said.
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