Go on. Where do you think most of the problems are?
I’ll give you a hint: the mayors are (D).
The problem stems in part from the sheer volume of residential trash and recycling, which is far higher than usual with so many people at home. Some cities are struggling because many sanitation workers have contracted the virus, have had to quarantine due to possible exposure or have been afraid to go to work.
“Both large and small cities have been experiencing this double-whammy of increased waste volume as well as staffing shortages,” said David Biderman, executive director and chief executive officer of the Solid Waste Association of North America, which represents more than 10,000 industry professionals.
Philadelphia and Baltimore are among the hardest hit cities, though others, such as Atlanta and Nashville, also are having trouble. In Virginia Beach, Va., sanitation workers demanding hazard pay held a one-day work stoppage Aug. 19, putting trash collection behind for days. In New York City, garbage has piled up on some commercial corridors and residential streets after budget cuts reduced trash pickup.
Some residents are taking matters into their own hands. On two occasions the West Passyunk Neighborhood Association in South Philadelphia has trucked trash and recyclables in rented pickups to a city facility, after waiting in vain for municipal crews.
“Our streets looked like the city was abandoned,” said James Gitto, the association’s 29-year-old president. “It’s a daunting task when you look out and there is trash everywhere.”
At its worst, he said, the smell of rotten meat seeped into his home from trash bags piled by the street, and at night he could hear cats fighting over the spoils. He added that some garbage sat so long it stained the sidewalk.
Wanda Jones, a Philadelphia sanitation supervisor, said she understood the griping. “You expect every week, on that day, to get your trash picked up,” she said. “It’s frustrating for us not to be able to meet the needs.”
Ms. Jones, 55, said she knew quite a few sanitation workers who battled Covid-19 but believed all had recovered. Going to work was scary, she said, even if garbage collection didn’t require as much face-to-face contact as some other front-line jobs.
“In the back of your mind, there is always worry and concern,” she said. “Am I going to take it home to my children, to my spouse, to my mother?”
The one-two punch of the pandemic began hitting the Philadelphia Streets Department in March, when residential trash volumes rose after schools closed and many people started working from home or lost their jobs, said Scott McGrath, who oversees sanitation services for the city.
Since mid-July, the city has collected roughly 14,800 tons of trash a week from houses and small businesses, up from about 10,700 tons weekly a year earlier. (Commercial waste haulers generally service office buildings.)
Staffing issues emerged in April and have persisted. About 30% of the staff is now out, he said—whether due to Covid-19 or other reasons—compared with 15% to 20% usually.
The result: Trash and recycling languishes curbside for days. And residents aren’t happy. Since July 1, trash complaints to 311 are up 90% compared with the same period last year.
The city is hiring 120 temporary workers to bolster a collection staff that is usually around 900 workers strong, Mr. McGrath said. The city also extended drop-off center hours. “We’re slowly catching up,” he said. “We try to tell people, just try to be patient.”
Nashville hasn’t had staffing shortages but still has grappled with increased residential trash volume, said Sharon Smith, assistant public works director. From April through July, tonnage was up about 13%, causing some delays as crews scrambled to finish routes. “Everything is just taking longer than it normally would have,” Ms. Smith said.
The number of 311 trash complaints soared in July to 6,658, a 543% jump from July 2019, though this month’s tally is down compared with last August.
In Baltimore, so many sanitation workers tested positive for the coronavirus in June that, for three weeks, the public-works department closed the operations center that serves the city’s east side, disrupting garbage and recycling collection.
Last month, after employees had recovered and returned to work, exhaustion and a string of 90-plus-degree days began taking a toll on mask-wearing workers, resulting in heat-related injuries and other ailments, said Matthew Garbark, acting public works director. In addition, he said, some employees have stayed home out of fear of catching the virus.
All the while, residential trash volume has been growing. In July, city sanitation workers collected 17,869 tons—roughly 35% more than they collected in May and a 50% increase from July 2019, city figures show.
On Thursday, Mr. Garbark said the city would suspend recycling pickup so workers can place a priority on garbage collection.
The department is averaging 150 or 160 of the 210 workers it needs to run 70 collection routes a day, Mr. Garbark said, and some residents have had to wait a week longer than usual for trash pickup. “That is completely unacceptable, and we are doing everything we can to find a sustainable solution,” he said.
City resident Ed Mejia, 56, said he and his neighbors didn’t know whether to put their trash out because pickup had been inconsistent and unpredictable. “Nobody knows when they’re going to come,” he said, or “if they’re going to come.”