Baltimore’s Department of Public Works suspended recycling pickup throughout the city until at least Nov. 1 to focus on its trash routes, citing shortages of workers caused by an overwhelming demand for service due to the coronavirus pandemic and sweltering heat.
The department plans to set up recycling drop-off centers in each of the city’s 14 districts for residents to dispose of their products, said Matthew W. Garbark, the city’s acting public works director. The centers would be open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
Workers who normally specialize in recycling will shift to trash collection, Garbark said. The department has been operating with dozens fewer solid waste workers than required, causing gaps in pickup and strains in such other services as rat abatement.
The department was averaging having about 150 employees per day despite needing some 230 people daily, he said.
The department reached a breaking point, with the pandemic sending workers in an already taxing occupation into overdrive, Garbark said. Due to employee shortages, he said routes have been missed, substitute workers don’t know the routes and supervisors have been confused.
“Crews begin on the recycling routes that were not completed the day before,” he said. “As the number of missed routes grows, we have been unable to make up collection the next day. The backlog has become so significant that it’s taken days, or sometimes over a week, to make up the missed collection routes.”
Residents will have to start dropping off their own recycling starting Monday, department spokeswoman Yolanda Winkler said in an email. She added that trash pickup will continue as usual on a once-a-week basis.
The employee shortages have coincided with one of the hottest months on record in Maryland, leading to further anxiety and concern among workers as they sought to pick up the slack, Garbark said, especially as workers are required to wear masks at all times and are having trouble breathing.
One solid waste worker, Donald Savoy, died on the job earlier this week. While Garbark did not say explicitly it was heat-related, he said the 12-year veteran’s death underscores the risks that workers face daily on the job.
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A COVID-19 outbreak at the at one facility disrupted recycling for three weeks starting in June. Many department employees subsequently refused to show up for shifts in June, leading to delays in trash pickup services.
Anthony Wyche, a solid-waste driver with over 20 years of experience and a labor representative for other employees, said he and his colleagues have been dogged by the high volumes of waste accruing over the course of the pandemic. With more people at home during the day, it means more trash and recycling products left for his team to handle, he said.
“The workers are overworked and working longer hours,” Wyche said. “I’ve seen the best of the best trashmen breaking down because of too much trash out there right now. We need more help.”
“I’ve seen the best of the best trashmen breaking down because of too much trash out there right now. We need more help.”— Anthony Wyche, solid-waste driver
Glen Middleton Sr., president of the AFSCME, Local 44 ― which represents solid-waste workers — said many employees work more than one job and have concerns about spreading the coronavirus to other work environments as well as their families. He said a preexisting staffing deficit also set workers behind.
“The jobs these solid-waste workers are doing are some of the toughest jobs that’s out there,” Middleton said. “These men and women are stressed out, working 10 to 12 hours every day, lifting and throwing trash. That’s not easy.”
Middleton added that he thinks it’s unfair for people to blame the situation on the workers, most of whom live in the city and want clean streets and neighborhoods.
“It’s their community, too,” he said.
The department looked to hire contractors in June and early July to assist the crews, Garbark said, but only has been able to secure two to cover a handful of the city’s 70 routes. He said Baltimore’s narrow streets and alleys as well as a national shortage of solid-waste workers contributed to the hiring difficulties.
The city has explored other ways to address the shortages, including offering overtime to other Baltimore employees and working out the legal and liability risks of having outside contractors use their vehicles, Garbark added.
He did say routine recycling pickup could resume earlier than Nov. 1 if the backlog improves considerably before then.
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Experts in sustainability and conservation said that while they support the department’s work, the suspension of service could make people less motivated to recycle and add strain and stressors to the environment.
“We’re all creatures of habit, and when we step away from recycling, it might mean that we have a harder time getting into it again,” said Adam Lindquist, who leads the Healthy Harbor Initiative for the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. “If your trash and recycling doesn’t fit in your city-issued trash can, there’s a risk that trash will overflow ... directly into our streams and harbor.”
City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat representing Baltimore’s 5th District, said the public works department made the best possible decision it could given the circumstances.
“This is what needed to be done to ensure trash always gets picked up,” Schleifer said. “Trash collection is one of the most essential functions of city government, and if you lose that, you’re done — you can’t have trash collection not happening.”
Schleifer added that trash, more so than recycling, presents acute health and safety risks if left to pile up. Leftover trash can cause irreparable pollution and lead to swells of vermin, insects and other predators. It also can be a harbinger of violence and injuries.
To ensure that services stabilize quickly, Schleifer said city unions must act fast to secure better wages and benefits for employees. Until then, city residents must step up to shoulder some of the burden, he said.
“They’re always there for us, every single week,” he said, “and it’s time for us to be there for them.”