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'We've Reached Our Breaking Point': DPW Suspends Curbside Recycling In Baltimore To Address Coronavirus-Related Trash Backlog

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Baltimore Department Of Public Works officials say a number of issues have created a major backlog in trash pickup around the city.

In order to address the backlog, the city will no longer offer curbside recycling pickup starting August 31.

"We've reached our breaking point," Acting Director Matthew W. Garbark said in a press conference Thursday.

Officials said whatever is left out right now, whether it is in the yellow can or a trash can, will be collected by the city's trash crews.

The city instead is urging residents to community collection centers which will be open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

By cancelling curbside recycling pickup, DPW officials say their employees and contractors can focus on trash pick up.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the amount of residential trash in the city, officials said, as well as leading to come employees contracting the virus.

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"As the pandemic progressed, and more and more people began staying at home, we saw an increase in trash tonnage of over 20 percent," Garbark said. "To assist in handling these in this increased volume, we began seeking contract support in April and obtained emergency approval to move forward with contracts without the need to competitively bid."

But officials said they received little to no interest on those bids. It was in May when several things created a snowball effect that lead to a major backlog of trash pickup.

In mid-May, DPW got its first reports of COVID-19 cases at their Eastside Sanitation Yard At Bowleys Lane. By early June, nearly 30 employees at the Eastside yard were out due to infection or self-isolation, including all of their supervisors.

"On June 10, we suspended all these site operations as well as citywide recycling collection for a period of three weeks to disinfect and to allow all employees to quarantine," Garbark said.

Crews from the city's west side and other solid waste employees helped with trash pickup citywide.

"This led to a serious problem with missed routes, lack of clarity on routes and supervisor confusion," he added. Then workers began calling out, too.

The city again sought help from contractors, but again there was little interest.

DPW officials said everyone was back at work the week of July 4, but on July 17 another coronavirus outbreak was reported among employees at the Quarantine Road Landfill. The department sent all but a few employees home to self-isolate and closed the landfill for two days.

"The threat of COVID and the potential exposure employees have given them, given their public facing jobs has remained a serious fear," Garbark said. "More importantly, this July has set a record for the hottest month in Maryland history. It also set a 148-year record on number of days in a month with temperatures at or above 90 degrees."

Beyond coronavirus fears, some employees had to take leave due to heat-related illnesses.

"Our employees are also required to wear masks at all times, which restricts breathing, and can increase heat related illness as well. Our crews were quite simply, exhausted."

In August, as more employees called out, DPW redirected recycling crews to pick up trash.

"As the number of missed routes grows, we have been unable to make up collections the next day," Garbark said. "The backlog has become so significant that it has taken days, or sometimes over a week, to make up the missed collection routes trash and recycling."

DPW officials said there are a number of other reasons affecting the city's ability to keep up with demand: a shortage of solid waste employees nationwide and contractors trucks that are too large to fit down the city's narrow streets and alleys as well as liability issues with contractors.

Mayor Jack Young asked that DPW find a way to consistently pickup trash. In order to do that, Garbark said, DPW would have to temporarily suspend its curbside recycling program. The suspension will remain in effect through November 1.

"That being said, we must do what we can to encourage recycling and waste diversion. Our recently released long term operational plan, Less Waste Better Baltimore, makes these commitments to waste diversion and reuse abundantly clear," Garbark said. 

In the interim, DPW will operate 14 locations where recycling can be dropped off:

  • District 1: DPW Maritime Operations Facility, 311 Eastbourne Avenue
  • District 2: DPW Eastside Sanitation Yard, 6101 Bowleys Lane (open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday-Saturday)
  • District 3: Hamilton Elementary School, 5807 Harford Road
  • District 4: Chinquapin Middle School, 900 Woodbourne Avenue
  • District 5: Former Police Academy, 3500 W. Northern Parkway
  • District 6: Greenspring Middle School, 4701 Greenspring Avenue
  • District 7: Westside Elementary School, 2235 N. Fulton Avenue
  • District 8: Westside Skills Center, 4501 Edmondson Avenue
  • District 9: DPW Meter Shop, 200 N. Franklintown Road
  • District 10: DPW Southwest Sanitation Yard, 701 Reedbird Avenue (open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday-Saturday)
  • District 11: Digital Harbor High School, 1100 Covington Street
  • District 12: Dunbar High School, 601 N. Central Avenue
  • District 13: DPW Property Management Facility,1825 Edison Highway
  • District 14: Mergenthaler ("Mervo") High School, 3500 Hillen Road

Trash and recycling can also be dropped off at:

  • Sisson Street Citizen Drop-Off Center, located at 2840 Sisson Street, Monday – Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
  • Northwest Transfer Station, located at 5030 Reisterstown Road, Monday - Saturday 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Quarantine Road Landfill, located at 6100 Quarantine Road. Monday - Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

DPW will be looking for more contract support to help with trash collection at apartments and condominiums as well as looking for contractors to help with driving the city's trash trucks.

They will also look to other city agencies for CDL drivers to help them with trash collection.

"Throughout this pandemic as Baltimore has faced crisis after crisis, our residents have come together to support each other. We are asking that you continue to do so," Garbark said. "During this time, look out for your neighborhood and your neighbors to ensure we have a clean city. We believe this plan, while difficult, is what is needed for us to gain control of this crisis, and to ensure consistent and effective collections."

DPW officials said the money spent on contractors should be able to be refundable with federal funds helping cities with coronavirus expenses.

Click here to see daily routes serviced for trash pickup and several collections sites.

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