Trash troubles: The pandemic started it; inflation keeps it going

Plastic waste cleaned from Durham’s Ellerbee Creek – Photo: Lisa Sorg

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.” Read more