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


This is certainly true at my house. Americans staying home during the pandemic are eating more at home, doing more at home, ordering more deliveries that arrive in boxes at home. And some cities are struggling to keep up with the trash. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's not like garbage collector Yogi Miller is spying on the people whose trash he picks up. But he can't help notice some changes along his residential route in northeastern Ohio.

YOGI MILLER: (Laughter) I could tell you a lot of people (laughter). The biggest thing is everybody being at home from work and home from school. More people means more trash. It's easy as that.

HORSLEY: Demetrius Tart has also felt the weight of extra trash along his route in Alpharetta, Ga. Tart used to pick up 17 or 18 tons each day. Now it's more like 22 tons.

DEMETRIUS TART: The cans are overfilled. We got to get out, clean it up sometimes when it hits the ground.

HORSLEY: Tart drives one of those semi-automated trash trucks. But he can't always stay a robot arm's length away from the garbage. He worries some of the extra trash he's handling might carry traces of the coronavirus.

TART: It's scary. I hate that I have to get out and touch stuff that I shouldn't have to touch. That's the biggest fear of my job is taking something home to my family.


HORSLEY: Nationwide, residential trash volumes spiked as much as 25% during the spring lockdown. Since then, it's dropped a bit, but it's still well above pre-pandemic levels. For garbage collectors, that means longer workdays and more trips to the dump. Some sanitation workers have gotten sick or had to quarantine. Baltimore has faced a severe shortage of trash collectors. Acting Public Works Director Matthew Garbark says it's not easy to find replacements.

MATTHEW GARBARK: It is just a hard, dirty job. 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.

HORSLEY: There is less garbage these days at vacant office buildings and hotels. But Garbark says the commercial trash trucks that typically empty those dumpsters are not easily reassigned to residential neighborhoods.

GARBARK: We actually use a specially designed trash truck that can fit in the narrow alleys. The contractors don't have that.

HORSLEY: Baltimore temporarily halted curbside recycling this month so shorthanded crews can concentrate on trash pickup.

Nashville is also making adjustments. Assistant Public Works Director Sharon Smith says that city will start collecting trash five days a week instead of four.

SHARON SMITH: It'll be shorter days, shorter routes and much more manageable, particularly if the changes we've seen with people working from home continues on into the future.

HORSLEY: When trash collection is overwhelmed, garbage piles up in the street, drawing rats, flies and lots of complaints from residents. Ohio garbage collector Yogi Miller says nobody wants that.

MILLER: They don't realize how much they need us until something happens where their trash doesn't get picked up. That's what people want - they want to put it out in the morning, and when they come home in the afternoon, they want it to be gone.

HORSLEY: There may be a silver lining to this garbage glut. David Biderman, who heads the Solid Waste Association of North America, says it has led to newfound appreciation for some front-line workers who were often invisible in the past.

DAVID BIDERMAN: Today is garbage day in my neighborhood, and my neighbor has a sign on her garbage can thanking the sanitation workers.

HORSLEY: Demetrius Tart has seen similar signs on his route in Georgia, along with a child's thank-you note drawn in crayon.

TART: They say, hey, you know, we really appreciate it. I mean, with sanitation, the world would stop if we stopped picking up.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.