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'Hard, Dirty Job': Cities Struggle To Clear Garbage Glut In Stay-At-Home World

A man wearing a protective mask looks at piled-up trash in New York City on April 24. Cities are struggling with collection as the volume of residential garbage surges during the stay-at-home era.
Cindy Ord
Getty Images
A man wearing a protective mask looks at piled-up trash in New York City on April 24. Cities are struggling with collection as the volume of residential garbage surges during the stay-at-home era.

From empty pizza boxes to Amazon cartons, household trash cans are overflowing with the refuse of our new, stay-at-home era — and cities are struggling to keep up.

Residential trash volume spiked as much as 25% this spring, according to the trade group Solid Waste Association of North America. It has shrunk a bit since then but remains well above pre-pandemic levels.

For garbage collectors, that means longer workdays and more trips to the dump.

"The biggest thing is everybody being home from work and home from school," said Yogi Miller, who collects residential garbage in northeastern Ohio. "More people means more trash. It's as easy as that."

Demetrius Tart used to collect between 17 and 18 tons of trash each day along his route in Alpharetta, Ga. Now it's more like 22 tons a day.

"The cans are overfilled," Tart said. "The bags are not tied up. You've got to get out and clean it up sometimes when it hits the ground."

Tart's trash truck is equipped with a robot arm to lift the cans, but he can't always keep a healthy distance from the garbage. He worries some of the extra trash he's handling might carry traces of the coronavirus.

"It's scary," Tart said. "I hate that I have to get out and touch stuff that I shouldn't even have to touch. That's the biggest fear in my job — is taking something home to my family."

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted all kinds of supply chains, including the one that leads to the landfill. Some sanitation workers have gotten sick or had to quarantine because of sick co-workers. Baltimore has faced a severe shortage of trash collectors in recent months. And it's not easy to find replacements.

"It is just a hard, dirty job," said Baltimore's acting public works director, Matthew Garbark. "It is quite common for someone to walk off the job within a day or two, because they just don't realize how hard the work is."

While residential trash bins are overflowing, dumpsters sit empty outside vacant office buildings and hotels. But the commercial trucks that ordinarily empty those dumpsters are not easily reassigned to residential neighborhoods.

"We have very narrow streets and alleys," Garbark said. "We actually use a specially designed trash truck that can fit in the narrow alleys. The contractors don't have that."

Baltimore temporarily halted curbside recycling this month so short-handed crews could concentrate on trash pickup. Residents were encouraged to use new drop-off centers for recycling and not just dump their old cans and newspapers in the trash.

"We have seen a whole lot of neighbors organize themselves to actually take collections to these centers," Garbark said. "Everyone has to work together, because we can't get through this alone."

Nashville, Tenn., is also making adjustments to deal with a surge in residential trash. The city plans to start collecting five days a week instead of four.

"It will be shorter days, shorter routes and much more manageable," said Assistant Public Works Director Sharon Smith. "Particularly if the changes we've seen with people working from home continues on into the future."

When trash collection is overwhelmed, garbage piles up in the street, drawing rats, flies and lots of complaints from residents.

"They don't realize how much they need us until something happens where their trash doesn't get picked up," said Miller, the Ohio trash collector. "They want to put it out in the morning. And when they come home in the afternoon, they want it to be gone. That's what I want when I put my trash out."

If there's a silver lining to the garbage glut, it may be the newfound appreciation for a group of front-line workers who were often invisible in the past.

"So many people are working from home," said David Biderman, the solid waste association's executive director. "They see the truck come down the street every day. And they see the men pick up the stuff and put it in the back of the truck. Today is garbage day in my neighborhood, and my neighbor has a sign on her garbage can thanking the sanitation workers."

Tart has seen similar signs on his route in Georgia, along with a child's thank-you note, drawn in crayon and attached to the top of a trash can.

"Sanitation," Tart said. "The world would stop if we stop picking up."

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.