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Waste Industry // Environment // MSW

Why Does Hot Weather Make Waste Management More Difficult?

From pests and smells to fires and service delays, the biggest problems for routine waste and recycling service pop up during periods of hot weather.

Ryan Deer | July 22, 2021


Summer is the time to splurge on vacation days, long lunches, and company picnics for many businesses, but there’s no fun in the sun for commercial waste and recycling services. While the postal service might curse the falling of rain, snow, or sleet, the biggest problems for routine waste collection and disposal pop up during the heat.

Now, with the historic heat waves of the US and Canada increasing and intensifying, the table is set for unprecedented challenges in waste management. While foul odors, pests, and overflowing trash plague the business side, hot weather wreaks even more havoc on the industry.

Dealing with service delays, mechanical failure, and landfills primed like powder kegs, hot weather can turn the process into a real dumpster fire—for everyone involved.

However, a little preparation and precaution can make all the difference during the sweltering season, and these are the things your business should know (and prepare for) to beat the heat.

How Hot Weather Disrupts Your Business’s Routine Service

When temperatures rise, so do the complications with standard waste and recycling service at your business. And chances are, you’re well aware when these problems arise.

Perhaps the most poignant effect from higher temps is odor. Heat and humidity allow bacteria to grow faster and smells to travel farther. Humidity also allows those wafted smells to linger longer. That means any standing garbage—whether from restaurant food waste, a well-intentioned work fridge cleanout, or unbagged refuse—will begin to emit a strong odor much faster than cool-weather months.

With odor often comes pests—a sanitary nuisance and property hazard for businesses. Flies are attracted to spoiling food and rotting trash, and even food residue left on recyclable materials like plastics and glass. Flies seek this out, moving in and infesting hot garbage piles with maggots, an undesirable and unpleasant situation any business would hope to avoid.

Outside of bugs, standing garbage can attract rats, raccoons, birds, mice, opossums, and even bears depending on the region. If your business regularly allows garbage to sit for long periods or fails to take measures to secure bins and dumpsters, these opportunistic animals could occupy your facility long after the waste is hauled off—a problem most recently reported in Philadelphia.

Even without the presence of excess food waste or spoilage, the dangers of compacted miscellaneous waste and recycling is a fire risk. A common occurrence before the COVID-19 pandemic, large-scale cleanouts of hazardous and flammable materials surged during the pandemic—and with it, dumpster fires and compactor truck explosions.

Oil-soaked rags, aerosol cans, propane tanks, batteries, e-waste, fertilizers, pool chemicals, and even lighter fluid are often wishcycled or discarded through curbside and commercial MSW or recycling service. Under the right conditions, some of these items can spontaneously combust. For others, like lithium-ion batteries, all it takes is a little heat and friction from being battered in the metal can or truck. And in the driest conditions, a single cinder from a cigarette butt or fireplace cleanout will ignite a blaze.

Between the inherent safety risks, unsightly overflows, and intolerable odors, many businesses rationally seek to up their frequency of regular service and request container swaps before they’re at capacity.

Unfortunately, commercial customers aren’t the only ones being hampered by the heat.

How Heat Causes Large-scale Industry Incidents and Slowdowns

As larger swaths of the country experience extended periods of hot temperatures, the volume of requests spikes and stays elevated through the summer months. 

To mitigate smells and nuisances, additional pickups are increasingly requested yet frequently delayed due to massive demand. Similarly, roll-off open-top dumpster service—commonly used for large jobs like construction and warehousing—reaches peak activity in the summer months. 

Despite the anticipated flux, haulers struggle to keep up with deliveries and collections. Add in a COVID-19-exacerbated labor shortage, and it’s likely your business could be left in a very stinky situation without proper planning.

Heat slows the entire industry down, from overbooked compactor truck drivers to the operations at materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and landfills.

[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: What is a MRF?]

MRF workers, picking recyclables and contaminants off of a high-speed conveyor belt, already have the most dangerous job in the waste industry. With excessive heat buildup in the gargantuan facilities, workers must be given more hydration and cooling breaks to mitigate heat injuries.

And where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The high-speed, machine-heavy process of sorting trash from treasured recyclables is a known fire risk. During a period between May 2019 and April 2020, there were 333 reported recycling facility fires. The industry report also makes a reasonable estimation of unreported fires, bringing the total to over 1,800 fires affecting 40% of all facilities.

Machinery jams, exploding lithium-ion batteries, and flammable aerosols cause many of these, but it’s no surprise that the risks are amplified and frequency of fires greater in hotter months.

A bar chart showing recycling facility fires from years 2016 to 2020.

One need only look at the headlines to see the regularity of recycling plant fires, including historic blazes in Phoenix, Arizona, Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Fresno, California, Tuscaloosa, Alabama—the list goes on.

Combustion and compacted super-heating follow the mix of solid waste and recyclable material to landfill as well, mixing with new heat-related risks once there. Compounding the dangers of flammable materials, decomposition of food waste in oxygen-depleted environments like landfills naturally yields a considerable amount of flammable methane gas.

It’s a significant and persistent problem, as food waste makes up a quarter of all material sent to landfill according to the EPA. Tied to this, landfills overall represent the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.

Long-decaying organic material mixed with the right weather conditions (like an extra-dry heat wave) creates a “sweet spot” for fire, an observation noted by fire officials who have battled blazes in Raleigh, North Carolina or contained landfill gas explosions in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

It’s for this reason considerable attention has been cast upon methane regulation from landfills. While the EPA struggles to accrue accurate self-reporting from landfill operators, sweeping reforms have been struck at a federal level as part of President Biden’s climate policy. New regulations will require 1,590 U.S. landfill operators to comply with mitigating the gas (through expensive and developing technology) over the next 30 months.

So, what does this have to do with your business? The answer rests in operational downtime. With regular and catastrophic fires (plus OSHA-mandated heat breaks), MRF and landfill operations grind to a halt—this costs their operators time and money to not only repair equipment but also in receiving business from waste and recycling haulers. 

From the hauler standpoint, it eliminates the nearest end-destination for full trucks, meaning the transportation costs for unloading skyrocket.

And with inevitable methane-capturing investment across the country, the industry is looking at a measurable hike in operating costs. A defensive measure, costs like these are routinely passed to haulers by raising landfill tipping fees. Haulers, meanwhile, pass along operational costs to their customers through APIs (annual price increases), often levied as high as 20% year-over-year.

Uncapped fees and additional surcharges to simply keep service running smoothly through the summer can leave any business owner heated, but there are steps you can take to keep these to a minimum.

Steps Your Business Can Take to Prepare

No business wants to spend more time in the heat or stench than they have to, so a few simple proactive measures can make a big difference. We’ll keep it simple.

Secure Your Location

Pest control, odor issues, and fire risks can be mitigated by following industry best practices, like locking containers with lids, distancing the unit from your structures, and keeping the unit out of direct sunlight.

No Flammables in the Bin

Ensure no flammable or combustible liquids are discarded, including gasoline, oil-based paint, ammonia, paint thinner, bleach, pesticide, etc. These require a special pickup from your hauler. 

Aerosol cans that still contain propellants are forbidden, yet completely emptied cans may be recycled traditionally. And to keep your dumpster from going up like a tinderbox, never add hot contents from fireplaces, cigarette butt depositories, or grill cleanouts.

Order Dumpsters and Roll-offs Well In Advance

With demand as high as it is in warmer months, delays are inevitable for large units requiring delivery and replacement. If a project is scheduled in advance, so too must the receptacle be requested.

Anticipate Fluctuations and Alert Your Hauler

COVID-19 has made for volatile fluctuations in MSW and recycling volumes, however, it’s never a complete shot in the dark. In instances where standing garbage and overflowing containers can be predicted—such as projects, holidays, or post-pandemic move-in dates—notify your hauler so pickups and routes can be adjusted accordingly. 

And if your business is in great need of flexibility, RoadRunner’s own FleetHaul service uses agile routing and predictive algorithms to keep recyclable material moving in any weather. Reach out to see if we’re serving your market.

Reduce Contamination and Wishcycling

Food waste, food residue, and errantly attempting to recycle electronics will yield pests, smells, and fires. Food waste should be bagged or composted—never thrown directly into a dumpster. Food residue should be wiped or rinsed from recyclable materials like plastics, glass, and aluminum. And for e-waste, we’ve compiled a number of resources for proper disposal in this post.



Let's get the conversation started on how to drive recycling and cost savings for your business.