This story was first published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Terrill “Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler, who worked for 14 months during the height of the pandemic as a Philadelphia sanitation worker, spent much of his tenure pointing out to the media and city officials the neighborhoods where garbage was piling up in the streets.
With a website and outreach to local news outlets, Haigler shone a spotlight on mounds of trash and the plight of garbage workers. He partnered with local elected officials and gathered an army of volunteers for cleanup. He also raised more than $30,000 to buy personal protective equipment for workers.
In Philadelphia and across the nation, the pandemic has exposed all the problems with trash pickup. In many places, refuse went uncollected as workers got sick or struggled with getting personal protective equipment, and garbage in residential neighborhoods piled up from people working from home. New trucks got caught in supply chain snarls.
Now, local jurisdictions still face trash problems that surfaced during the pandemic and are exacerbated by inflation and a scarce workforce. Cities are having to increase wages and add bonuses to attract and keep sanitation workers. Landfill tipping fees have gone up, and there’s still a higher percentage of trash accumulating in residential areas than there was before the pandemic began because more people are working from home at least part of the time.
The challenges have led to higher costs for cities and counties, and efforts to increase or shift budgets to cope are having mixed success.
The Memphis City Council held a meeting in July to address trash issues. Jacksonville, Florida, talked in January about paying residents back for uncollected trash, though officials eventually decided against it. Mounds of overflowing trash in New York City have dampened Mayor Eric Adams’ efforts to lure tourists back to the city. And thousands of complaints about St. Louis’ uncollected trash have set records in city hall.
In addition to its severe water problems, Jackson, Mississippi, almost lost its trash collection service in a contract dispute that was finally settled in October after the company went without pay for six months.
“It clearly is a problem that has not abated,” said Francis Ryan, a labor history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has studied sanitation workers and trash.
“When you walk down the streets of many big cities, you are having to get off the sidewalks to walk in the streets because of trash,” he said. “It’s a persistent problem that we are going to have to have really smart people try to resolve.”
If nothing else, the restrictions and societal changes of COVID-19 have illuminated how essential sanitation workers are and how little they make, said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade group.
“For a long time, solid waste was undervalued by the public compared to schools and parks and other things that are often competitors for financial support in the budget,” he said in a phone interview.
“People who worked in the garbage truck weren’t being paid as much as others. As a result of COVID, there’s been a shift from government and public officials,” he said. “These workers really are essential. We have to pay them a higher wage and have to attract new people to the industry. In 2022, things are significantly better than they were during the peaks of the COVID pandemic in 2020 or 2021.”
“Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler drew some popularity from his online interviews and videos and got out of the trash collection business. He raised his profile so much that he became an influencer and started a nonprofit. He’s now a community organizer, has written a children’s book about sanitation workers and is running for city council. But some of the attention he and others brought to trash apparently has paid off.
In Philadelphia, on-time trash collection rates jumped from 56% in the first quarter of fiscal 2022 to 96% in the first quarter of fiscal 2023, which started in September, said Jolene Nieves Byzon, communications director for the city controller’s office, drawing the numbers from the quarterly city manager’s report.
In addition, the city has increased the number of budgeted personnel who directly handle trash and collection from 960 to 1,108 employees. She could not say how many positions are currently vacant.
Houston also has experienced trash chaos during the pandemic. The latest difficulty was a shortage of drivers earlier this year. The city offered $3,000 bonuses to new hires, given over time to encourage them to stay on the job. The city also upped salaries by 6% to a starting pay of $18.44 an hour, according to a spokesperson for Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.
Mark Wilfalk, director of the department, said that at the end of 2021, the city’s vacancy rate for trash drivers and workers was 16% and has now dropped to 14%. “That doesn’t sound like much,” he acknowledged, but he said it’s the difference from having nearly 60 openings to around 45.
“We have had some setbacks even with the recruiting effort,” he said in a phone interview. “Sometimes, people don’t work out.”
Other hurdles in Houston, mirrored in other cities, include higher tipping fees at landfills, Wilfalk said, and delays in receiving 19 new waste collection vehicles that were ordered before he got to Houston in November 2021. The trash trucks now are not scheduled to arrive before next August, he said. “Services are delayed, and customers feel it.”
In Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed a bill that would have increased annual fees for solid waste facilities such as landfills and indexed those fees to inflation, despite overwhelming political support and a surprising endorsement by the private trash industry. The governor argued the higher fees would make it harder for companies to do business in Virginia, especially since inflation has skyrocketed.
But Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the governor’s statement amounted to “total spin” — more about politics than policy. The previous Democratic administration had put together a group of interested parties, including waste companies that would have had to pay the higher fees, he said in a phone interview. “They came up with a fee structure they thought was fair. In the meantime, the election happened.”
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The issue of fairness in who pays for waste management came to a head in San Diego in a referendum in November that barely passed.
It will allow the city to start charging homeowners for trash pickup. The city council will set the amount later. Currently, the city shoulders that burden through the general fund. One estimate showed it cost $173 million between 2017 and 2021, according to the Voice of San Diego.
Apartment dwellers, however, pay for private trash pickup under a hundred-year-old ordinance. The ballot measure was cast as an issue of fairness. New fees won’t take effect for a while, however, as studies need to be done before the city council can act, said Michael Zucchet of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, which supported the measure.
Zucchet said that since about half of San Diego residents live in apartments or condos and half in single-family homes, it’s not a surprise that the vote was close.
“In the California legislature, they are passing a number of bills related to increased recycling services and composting services,” he said. “Every other city would simply pass that along to households,” but San Diego couldn’t do that without the new measure.
Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, waste management expert and co-founder and CEO of WATS, a waste administration software company, said waste management infrastructure is just one of the many U.S. systems that are either broken or stumbling.
“Waste infrastructure in our country is as neglected as all our other infrastructure,” she said in an interview. The pandemic revealed these insufficiencies, she said, and people began to focus on it. “Waste touches everything; that’s why it matters so much.”
Elaine S. Povich is a reporter for Stateline, which first published this report.