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Garbage collectors operating amid the coronavirus crisis are risking infection and struggling to keep operations running smoothly, leading them to call for the distribution of more protective items.

While municipalities are ramping up countermeasures against infection clusters, some operators have already ceased their activities and more businesses may be forced to take similar measures if workers are confirmed to be infected.

Now garbage collectors are urgently asking the government for protective equipment while experts point out that citizens can help at their level by complying with the sorting rules.

This month, Shuichi Takizawa, 43, a garbage collector in Tokyo, started wearing a raincoat instead of protective clothing while working.

“The weather is going to get hotter, I am not sure how long I can keep wearing it,” he said.

Takizawa, a comedian, now works five times a week as a garbage collector as he struggles to book comedy gigs, typically his main source of employment.

It’s common for collectors to breathe in dust on the job and the distribution of face masks from Takizawa’s workplace has ceased, prompting him to wear his own dust-proof mask that he washes for reuse.

He disinfects his hands and clothes every time he gets in the car. “It’s scary because this virus is invisible,” he said worriedly. Many of his colleagues are in their 70s and would likely get severe symptoms if they contracted COVID-19.

“Waste treatment sites require as much hygienic protection equipment as health professionals,” Takizawa said.

Shuichi Takizawa, 43, now works five times a week as a garbage collector as he struggles to book comedy gigs, typically his main source of employment. | KYODO
Shuichi Takizawa, 43, now works five times a week as a garbage collector as he struggles to book comedy gigs, typically his main source of employment. | KYODO

Part of the job involves opening bags of combustible waste to remove any empty beverage containers, as well as picking up used masks at the collection point.

According to a waste disposal body that covers Tokyo’s 23 wards, household combustible waste from Feb. 24 to April 12 increased by 3.1 percent from the same period in the previous year due to the government’s request that schools close and large events be canceled. An official said this is due to an increase in the number of people eating and drinking at home.

Waste treatment sites are already being affected by the virus. More than 10 percent of staff members at the Suma office of the Kobe environmental bureau were infected with the virus and thus the office had to shut down on April 20. The infection route is unknown.

An official insists the office will do its best to continue collection operations. Since its workers are forced to isolate themselves at home, garbage collection has barely kept up and only thanks to the support of other departments.

From April 11, Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward has evenly deployed its workers at the four bases in the area, as they were previously deployed in an unbalanced manner, to reduce the risk of an infection cluster. However, due to a shortage of hydroalcoholic gel used for sanitization, concerns have not abated.

Seiichiro Fujii, an associate professor of Daito Bunka University who has done field work at collection sites, said familiarity with local areas is essential to collection work, and that collaboration between towns and cities is difficult to arrange.

“Some municipalities do not have enough workers in the first place, so they have relied on outsourcing,” he said.

“Operations cannot continue if the collection offices and sites become infection clusters.”

If the issue is not handled properly, people may see garbage overflowing in the cities. “There are things that can be done by citizens, such as adhering to sorting rules and sealing trash bags properly. The accumulation of these minor actions will allow for the maintenance of the local community,” Fujii said.

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