Baltimore will scale back recycling collection to every other week due to massive staffing shortages during the coronavirus pandemic, city officials announced Wednesday.
The move, which takes effect next Tuesday, comes amid a combination of increased trash following the holiday season and a pandemic-driven shortage of workers that has left the city, at times, with as little as half of its staff on the job.
Over the past week, an average of 227 members of the city’s sanitation staff have been out of work each day — about 37% of the city’s sanitation workforce, said Jason Mitchell, director of the Department of Public Works, during an interview with The Baltimore Sun. On Dec. 30, that figure was even higher, peaking at 340 employees, or 55% of the workforce, out on a single day.
Pre-COVID, the city typically would experience no more than 8-12% of its workforce gone at any one time, Mitchell said.
“These are staggering differences,” Mitchell said.
When the biweekly recycling collection begins next week, Baltimore will be divided into two zones. Communities north of North Avenue will see their recycling collected during cycle A beginning Jan. 18. Neighborhoods south of North Avenue will have collection on cycle B beginning Jan. 24.
This week, crews are collecting recycling in neighborhoods that have been missed over the course of the last several weeks, Mitchell said.
Bulk trash and Christmas tree pickups will not be impacted by the scheduling change, he said.
Making recycling biweekly will allow city crews to prioritize trash collection, Mitchell said. Residents can take their recyclables to the city’s five recycling centers during operating hours, and officials are looking into opening additional collection locations, he said.
There is no end date for the reduced service, but the city does not intend to make the move permanent, Mitchell said. The Department of Public Works will monitor the situation, and switch back to weekly collection when it can be sustained, he said.
The reduction of recycling service marks the second time Baltimore has made a substantial change to curbside recycling during the pandemic. Service was suspended altogether for nearly five months in 2020 as the department struggled to contain COVID infections among sanitation staff.
In January 2021, city officials announced they were contracting with two small haulers, as well as with three workforce development groups for a cost of up to $7 million to restart recycling collection. Those companies will remain under contract to assist with collections during biweekly recycling collection, Mitchell said.
Since then, Baltimore has enacted a requirement for city employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or face regular COVID testing. The sanitation workers who handle daily pick-ups are 56% vaccinated, said James Bentley, spokesman for the department. The city’s entire solid waste staff is 68% vaccinated.
Baltimore officials also are hoping new recycling bins will assist residents with storing extra recyclables in the interim. Distribution is still underway for the bins, which are being delivered to residents across the city at no cost. About 72% of city households have now received the bins — neighborhoods with historically lower participation in recycling programs got theirs first — and crews are on schedule to finish the distribution by the end of February, Mitchell said.
The new bins won’t help in the Remington neighborhood where recyclables have been piling up in yards since before Christmas, however. Residents reported they don’t have them yet.
Remington resident Sarah Smith said she and her boyfriend caved and drove their recyclables to the city’s Sisson Street collection site after the empty champagne bottles from the holidays began to smell. Many of her neighbors haven’t taken the same step, and the piles of recyclables have continued to build, she said.
Smith worried that a biweekly pickup schedule will confuse residents. she envisioned residents putting their recyclables on the curb during off weeks and leaving them there.
“It would sit outside and make a mess,” she said.
Erin O’Keefe, another Remington resident whose recycling hasn’t been picked up since Christmas, said her partner loaded his car with recyclables that were blowing down the nearby alley for weeks and drove them to Sisson Street.
Biweekly recycling won’t help the city reduce waste or become more sustainable in the long term, O’Keefe said, but if it ensures that trash is picked up and the city communicates the change to residents, she acknowledged it may be the best solution for now.
Both O’Keefe and Smith said their trash has been picked up on schedule.
Mitchell said the city also is working on long-term plans to address chronic staff shortages in the department. Recycling routes will be recalibrated to make them more efficient once all the new recycling bins have been distributed, he said. And the Department of Public Works has begun offering classes to let city employees earn a commercial drivers license in-house in an effort to fill vacancies within the department.