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Coronavirus has Philly falling way behind on trash pickup — but it’s not the only city

Philadelphia has long been known for its trouble dealing with trash and litter. But now it’s not alone.

Temple University Junior Maddie Gee, left, and her boyfriend Gavin Bond carry items into Gee's apartment past piles of trash along Diamond Street in North Philadelphia on Monday.
Temple University Junior Maddie Gee, left, and her boyfriend Gavin Bond carry items into Gee's apartment past piles of trash along Diamond Street in North Philadelphia on Monday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia has struggled to keep up with trash and recycling collection during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving residents waiting for days as garbage, bottles, cans, and boxes pile up.

But it’s not alone.

Other cities, including Baltimore and Atlanta, have faced similar challenges. Others have suspended yard waste or bulk trash pickup in order to not fall behind on regular household waste collection.

“A substantial number of cities are experiencing delays in waste collection as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, which supports public- and private-sector waste professionals.

Philadelphia has long been known for its trouble dealing with trash and litter. But Biderman said the reasons for Philadelphia’s recent collection issues — a high number of workers calling out sick and an increase in residential trash volume as people stay home — are occurring in sanitation departments across the country during the pandemic.

Baltimore trash collections were delayed for weeks, and the city suspended recycling collection in June as the city faced COVID-19 outbreaks among sanitation employees. Nashville and Atlanta have also faced collection issues, and Biderman said more cities grappling with recent increases in coronavirus cases have run into similar trouble.

» READ MORE: Trash is piling up, but people aren’t blaming Philly sanitation workers

Some cities, however, have had minimal issues.

In Boston, where residential trash and recycling collection is done by contractors rather than city workers, an official said there have been no pickup schedule adjustments despite a 25% increase in tonnage. The initial increase has since subsided, but is still 10% more than before the pandemic.

New York City, which was hard-hit by COVID-19 this spring but has the largest sanitation department in the world, was able to keep up with collections. Officials have attributed that success in part to a decrease in trash volume in some wealthy neighborhoods, as residents fled the city.

But New York is now facing budget cuts due to the pandemic’s huge economic impact, which has led to “tough choices” and service reductions, said Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for the city’s sanitation department.

“Our sanitation budget was cut by over $100 million, including a temporary suspension of our community composting subsidy, and reductions in service that amount to a more than 60% decrease in corner litter basket collection service,” Goodman said.

Philadelphia’s budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 included cuts in many departments to fill a $750 million hole due to the coronavirus. The final budget included a reduction of about $2.2 million for the Streets Department’s sanitation division, city spokesperson Lauren Cox said.

“The city is exploring the use of additional federal recovery grant funds to support increased waste collection and recycling costs due to COVID-19,” Cox said.

City sanitation departments are often under-resourced, Biderman said.

“Local government officials have a lot of competing priorities,” he said. “Schools and parks and a lot of amenities are often prioritized over the mundane collection of waste, which no one pays a lot of attention to until it’s not picked up.”

Cities handling collection hiccups effectively, Biderman said, are communicating with residents about delays and providing up-to-date information about when to put out trash. While Philadelphia has put out information about pickup delays and schedule adjustments, the city’s 311 social media accounts are full of complaints from residents who have put out their bins and waited days or weeks without pickup.

Philadelphia is working to hire 120 temporary sanitation workers for six months to keep up with collections. Mayor Jim Kenney said they will be hired from a list of existing applicants. And the city’s sanitation centers, where residents can drop off their own trash and recycling, are now open seven days a week.

The additional temporary workers will cost the city about $2 million, Cox said.

Managing Director Brian Abernathy said he hopes that adding more workers to sanitation crews will allow the city to keep up with collections and that the city will evaluate whether they are still needed after six months.

If we need new solutions or that solution doesn’t work, we’re going to try something else and make sure it does,” he said.

But trash-related issues are likely to persist, Biderman said, as many Americans continue working from home. Some trends are pointing in the right direction, such as a drop-off of the initial increase in trash tonnage. But volume remains above pre-coronavirus levels.

Kenney pleaded with Philadelphia residents this week to help reduce the amount of trash they produce and to properly bag and set out their waste. The city had done recycling collection every other week during the peak of the pandemic, but has been attempting to collect it weekly since the beginning of July. Kenney said that the volume of every-other-week pickup presented its own issues, but residents have still reported waiting weeks for recycling pickup.

As of Tuesday, Kenney said, the city was “back on schedule,” aside from asking residents not to put out recycling for a few days so crews could catch up.

Tropical Storm Isaias, however, caused more delays — and complaints from residents.