Nearly four months into a citywide pause on recycling pickup due to the coronavirus pandemic, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced Tuesday that the service is set to resume next month.
Curbside recycling pickup in Baltimore will likely resume Jan. 19, Scott said during a news conference.
The Democrat said it hasn’t been determined whether the city will use a contractor to get recycling back online, but the city has already made use of outside companies to pick up trash during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Over the next several weeks, we will take the necessary steps to ensure that we provide PPE, cleaning protocols, training and adequate equipment to safely distance to keep our workforce healthy and safe,” Scott said. “These things don’t happen overnight.”
The city’s public works department suspended pickup in August to focus on trash collection, saying it had a shortage of workers because of increased demand from the pandemic, as well as the summer heat. The department needed about 230 workers daily, but only had about 150, officials said at the time. Recycling workers were redeployed to trash pickup routes.
Baltimore currently has six sanitation employees out due to COVID-19, said Matt Garbark, acting director of public works. During the summer, there were as many as 30 absent at once.
Since then, officials have pushed back a restart date for recycling several times, frustrating some residents eager to place their cardboard, plastic and paper on the curb once more.
Scott blamed the delays in part on the previous mayoral administration; he took the reins last week from outgoing Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
“There are a number of ongoing challenges and steps that were not taken that we must now address,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, city has established recycling drop-off locations in each of the 14 council districts in an attempt to fill the void. Residents have dropped off about 100 tons of recycling per week at the centers. But that pales in comparison with the amount of recyclables collected during curbside pickup, a number closer to 100 tons per day, Garbark said.
After calls for increased pay for sanitation workers proliferated during the pickup pause, Baltimore’s spending board gave seasonal sanitation workers full-time positions and paid a $500 bonus to all sanitation workers in November.
Recycling pickup was also put on hold for about three weeks in June following a virus outbreak at the Eastern Sanitation Yard.
Tuesday’s announcement was welcome news for Mark Parker, pastor at the Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown.
Parker’s church has been distributing large amounts of food to families in the need in the neighborhood, which has a large working-class, Latinx community that has faced steep job losses during the pandemic — and high infection rates.
The church a lot of cardboard boxes from food shipments that it’s been storing inside its building, Parker said. The church has been paying to have the recyclables taken to city drop-off centers periodically, he said.
“It makes a big difference for us, given the quantity of recycling we’re producing regularly. But it also is just an important part of helping all of us as a community to take care of our environment,” Parker said of Tuesday’s news.
Other major cities have had similar problems with waste collection during the pandemic, including nearby Philadelphia, which combined recycling with trash to lessen its load.
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“This is a perfect storm for local governments: more garbage and recycling to collect and less people to collect them,” said David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, an advocacy group representing public and private waste management professionals. “Hopefully, we learn from this so we don’t repeat the suspension of the curbside collection.”
The key takeaway is that cities need to allocate more resources to sanitation departments to ensure they’re ready to handle emergencies that may increase the load of residential trash and cripple the workforce, Biderman said.
“What this reflects is that waste collection has been under-resourced from a budget perspective. The city of Baltimore would be able to collect more trash if they had more resources available to them to do it,” Biderman said.
“We have to build in more resiliency into municipal sanitation budgets in the future.”
Baltimore has already disbursed more than $2 million to private companies for emergency trash collection services during the pandemic. Those payments are set to be evaluated by the city’s Board of Estimates on Wednesday.
Garbark said the city is still relying on two contractors to collect trash and has yearlong contracts with both — Goode Cos. and Spindler Refuse Service.
Baltimore Sun reporter Ben Leonard contributed to this article.