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The COVID-19 pandemic in Catalonia significantly decreases and changes the activities on the demo site

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While the entire DECISIVE project is going through some unstable and unforeseeable times, our demonstration sites suffer as well. The case of Barcelona is a specific one as it is tied to the Autonomous University of Barcelona, which again needs to follow nation wide rules on protection and other measures.

The impact of the state of emergency due to COVID-19 has affected social behaviour, economic processes and industrial sectors, among others, and university life is no exception. In Spain, the state of emergency came into force on March 13th, which closed most of commercial and industrial activities as well as educational and academic institutions, from nurseries to universities. In line with this, the rectorate of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) announced the suspension of any attendance based teaching activity for the rest of the academic year 2019/2020, and restricted the physical presence to essential administrational and maintenance staff only. This measure included the shutdown of all campus restaurants and cafeterias until further notice.

The DECISIVE project is highly affected by this turn of events. The set-up of a decentralised management system for biowaste from one campus restaurant by community composting was planned for March-April 2020. It included not only the installation of the corresponding composting equipment, but also measures for the improvement of separate collection of municipal waste and the deployment of an awareness campaign in the restaurants. Later activities such as the characterisation of biowaste after the implementation of the campaign were expected after summer. The arising of the COVID-19 pandemic invariably had devastating consequences for the implementation of the experience of a decentralised biowaste management system at the UAB Campus planned for the second semester of the course 2019/2020.

Which is the current situation?

In the short term, under the given circumstances, the composting experience had to be abandoned by UAB and ARC. Even if academic activity could resume by mid-September 2020, there would not be enough time to complete a whole composting cycle and obtain valid and timely results for the end of the project in January 2021. Thus, the purchase procedure for composting equipment, including a battery of temperature controlled 1m3 containers, was about to become effective, but had to be cancelled due to the former reasons. The start of the new semester in September will draw the timeline for the deployment of the awareness campaign and the implementation of the measures to improve waste separation and separate collection, as well as the subsequent waste characterisation to assess the results. However, the impact on the campus restaurants is yet uncertain. All of them belong to big restaurant chains, which are facing temporary or permanent staff reduction. It is no sure that all of them will reopen after summer, and under which conditions. Also, recent estimates point out that enrolment of new students or renovations might decrease about 50%.

At the moment, the feasibility of these DECISIVE activities depends on the state of emergency and whether it would be extended or not and if the academic year would start under normal conditions regarding the number of students, restaurant activity and all the services available.

What can be done?

The current situation in Catalonia leads to assume that the start of the new semester will not follow the usual calendar of activities and that further irregularities will have to be expected. In the meantime, work is being developed following two lines of approach. The first, by forecasting a feasible scenario of partial implementation of DECISIVE by the beginning of the new semester, and the second, by intensifying efforts in providing theoretical background information for other activities.

In the first place, material for the communication and awareness campaign has been updated and partly re-designed and is ready for production. The preparations for the performance of the face to face campaign in the restaurants are ready to the point that it can be activated any time with approximately two weeks’ notice, even considering the existing uncertainties for the next months.

Thus, even with a minimum activity at the university, it should be possible to adequately implement the measures for improvement of waste separation and separate collection, particularly of biowaste. The assessment of the expected increase in quantity and quality of the separately collected waste is to be performed between October and December.

On the other hand, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 impact, induced a turnabout towards a more theoretical and philosophic approach of the project. The abandoning of the composting experience leaves capacities for in-depth analysis of other aspects, as the factors involved in the deployment of a DECISIVE-System in different environments and how to achieve the goals laid down.

Which are the long term effects?

The main impact of COVID-19 in the long-term is that the experimental content of the work produced will be dramatically reduced. For the UAB, the initial proposal was to implement a decentralised system of separate collection of biowaste from main restaurants and their biological treatment in-situ, resulting in the production of compost, introducing a real circular approach in the campus. Under the current conditions, what can be achieved at most is the improvement of the quality of separate collection. With regard to the whole project, the information expected from the composting experience will be reduced to theoretical assumptions. On the other hand, a thorough impact analysis may provide insights and knowledge of the interdependence of particular actions and aspects that otherwise might not have come to attention.

To sum up, the COVID-19 contingency has not only affected the execution of the project, but also the commercial interactions with companies for the acquisition of equipment and material and the contracting of services. It can be regarded as a challenge for the capacity to face the new situation and to yield the most in the benefit of the project. A risk of this magnitude was too unforeseeable to be considered as a contingency in the drafting of the project.

However, it should not go without mentioning that the COVID-19 contingency in Catalonia has proven the added value of decentralized treatment in biowaste management in situations of confinement. In areas where home and community composting is widely implemented, it is contributing significantly to ensure a correct and efficient elimination of the biological risk, first by reducing manipulation and exposure and secondly due to the sanitizing conditions achieved in the composting process.

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