Defra issues advice to the waste sector because of coronavirus and their household waste

COVID-19 is a huge problem, and that includes a problem for those involved in waste management.

In the last 2 days, Defra has issued advice to the waste sector and councils about people self-isolating because of the coronavirus and how to deal with their household waste. What to do?

Chief amongst the concerns of the government is preventing the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19). Advice had already been issued by Public Health England on 26 February but the Defra advice – which is derived from PHE – has a new emphasis on storing the waste for 72 hours and was also published by PHE this afternoon.

It appears Defra and Public Health England have changed tack. While previously waste generated by those who test positive for the virus had to be collected as category B waste, it now appears safe to put it in with normal household waste after the 72 hour period.


The advice issued by Defra this week states: “Waste from possible cases and cleaning of areas where possible cases have been (including disposable cloths, tissues) should be put in a plastic rubbish bag and tied when full.

“The plastic bag should then be placed in a second bin bag and tied. It should be put in a suitable and secure place and marked for storage until the individual’s test results are known.

“Waste should NOT be left unsupervised awaiting collection. You should NOT put your waste in communal waste areas until negative test results are known or the waste has been stored for at least 72 hours.

“If the individual test is negative, this can be put in with the normal waste. If the individual tests positive, then store it for at least 72 hours and put in with the normal waste.”

The Defra advice continues: “If storage for at least 72 hours is not appropriate, arrange for collection as a Category B infectious waste either by your local waste collection authority if they currently collect your waste or otherwise by a specialist clinical waste contractor. They will supply you with orange clinical waste bags for you to place your bags into so the waste can be sent for appropriate treatment.”

Category B

On 26 February, Public Health England had said: “If the individual tests positive, then place bags in orange or yellow container or bags and arrange disposal as Category B waste.” (see story)

In light of the Defra/PHE advice, this category B approach now appears unnecessary if the waste has been stored for 72 hours. The government guidance can be seen hereand was updated today (11 March) with the details of the 72 hours storage period.

The initial 26 February advice regarding waste disposal specified all waste, including used tissues and masks, which has been in contact with any individual who suspects they may have contracted the virus, should be put in a plastic rubbish bag and tied when full. It said the plastic bag should then be placed in a second bin bag and tied. It should be put in a safe place and marked for storage until the result is available. And, PHE added on 26 February, if the individual tests negative, the waste can be put in the normal waste and, that if the individual tests positive, then the above advice must be followed.


Waste management companies are already reassuring employees and the public at large that plans are in place to protect people from infection. And, the sector is understood also to be preparing contingency plans to cope if employees are affected.

As noted by, Biffa, for example, has issued a series of instructions to its employees on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The company reminded employees to frequently wash their hands using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

When coughing and sneezing, they have been told to cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue, then throw the tissue away immediately and wash their hands.

Those who have a fever or a cough, feel unwell or suspect they may have the infection have been asked to contact the NHS services immediately and avoid contact with others until advised on what to do next.

Employees have also been reminded to follow the standard protocols when dealing with potentially contaminated waste. These instructions – or a variation on them – have been echoed by many other companies, including Suez and Viridor.

This is a good start, providing of course that every waste company, Local Authority and healthcare provider supplies their workers with an adequate supply of suitable gloves of gauntlets, good quality workwear and ideally some opportunity to change before leaving to go home (or to the pub!), and suitable washbasins that are well maintained with liquid soap, warm but not hot water, and paper towels of air dryer.

Recommendations for the use of alcohol hand rub use is appropriate but it is essential to recognise that this is largely ineffective of dirty hands sop in many situations may be limited in value. Better would be the prior use of a large medicated wipe such as those provided by Clinell that offer decontamination and cleaning as hands are rubbed on the wipe.

Staff working away from base, and all others, must be instructed and closely supervised to comply with PPE and hygiene rules. This is difficult to achieve while on the road, though this is of course no excuse and employers must take responsibility.

Hospital porters must be included in this drive for improved safety and their opportunities for satisfactory hygiene precautions are just as limited, and of course the risk applies whether handling general domestic-type refuse or healthcare wastes.

For all of those handling waste in sacks, given that it is impossible to know whether it has stood for 2, 3 or more days – and that would never be the case when removing waste from hospital wards etc – is to ensure that it is handled gently and not compressed that may eject micro-organisms and droplets etc from within.


1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the article. Really useful. It is interesting to see the differences between the guidelines and protocols issued by the different EU countries on how to manage wastes from potentially infected household. For instance, the guidelines published by the Spanish and Italian health authorities mirror those from in the UK as to the double bagging of waste. However, where the UK government has introduced the ’72 hour’ approach, Spain and Italy seem to be more relaxed about it and have omitted this protocol. It has to be mentioned though, that most of the waste collection services in Spanish cities are ‘zoning systems’ and not door-to-door, and they rely on communal, side-loader bins on the street, which do not require handling by waste crews. In addition to this, I believe they have introduced measures to disinfect the bins daily and prevent further infection risks.

    Going back to the 72 hour protocol – in theory, it makes sense and sounds straight forward enough. But I wonder how easy it is to follow in practice. Once would need to keep track of the waste bags produced daily. Some identification system would be required (marking them, etc.). Then, some properties might lack the space to hold these wastes at home for 72 hour, specially with once a week collections (or event fortnightly) typically rolled out by local authorities.


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