If budgetary reality hasn’t hit many D.C. residents yet, perhaps this is a wake-up call: The city has run out of garbage cans and recycling bins for its citizens.
On Dec. 6, Georgetown resident Ivy Pascal found that her recycling bin was missing from behind her Reservoir Road home. She called the city to order a new one and was told the bins were on back order. She called every subsequent month and got the same answer.
The situation is more dire than a few back-ordered recycling bins. Nancee Lyons, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works, said last week that her agency has been completely out of recycling receptacles since late fall. Same goes for Supercans — the jumbo receptacles given to households that get once-weekly pickup — as well as the smaller, 32-gallon containers distributed in center-city neighborhoods that get twice-weekly trash pickup.
The shortages are rooted in a $3.9 million cut to the DPW budget last fall, part of a broader effort by former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the D.C. Council to close a $188 million city budget gap for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1.
The good news is that more cans are on the way, although there appears to have been some debate over whether that was ever going to happen. Lyons said last week that her agency had been considering shifting the onus of procuring a trash/recycling receptacle from the government to the property owner. “There’s no plan of ever getting back to a point where we’re giving them out for free,” she said.
Happily, that plan seems to be have been abandoned; it seems to have registered at the highest levels of DPW management that eliminating trash cans wasn’t a good place to find an easy $400,000. “That wasn’t one of my best decisions,” said DPW’s director, William Howland, at a hearing earlier this month.
Linda Grant, another DPW spokeswoman, said today that the agency recently ordered new trash and recycling containers. They are at least a month from delivery, however, and there is a significant backlog of can-seeking residents.
Were District residents left to buy their own receptacles, it would stand to be a real back-to-the-future moment for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who has vigorously resisted the notion that his election would constitute a return to a prior era of poor city services.
The city has provided residents with free garbage cans since 1980, when Mayor Marion Barry (D) introduced the Supercan as a money-saving means of converting twice-a-week trash routes to once-a-week service. Previously, residents kept their own trash cans — often of the stamped-metal variety famously favored by Oscar the Grouch. It turned into an early triumph for Barry, and the 96-gallon plastic receptacles have since become a beloved civic institution.
Given the city’s still-unsettled budget situation, some fee hikes might be in order: Under DPW’s currently posted policy, residents can pay $62.50 for replacement or additional Supercans — a price that’s held since at least 1995 — while recycling bins and 32-gallon cans are handed out for free.
But that only applies when there’s cans to be handed out. So what is a binless resident to do? Pascal is using cardboard boxes salvaged from a nearby liquor store to hold her recyclables — which is a plan DPW endorses, says Lyons.
Pascal was less distressed about finding makeshift bins than the advice she initially got from a city employee — which was to put her recyclables in with the rest of her landfill-bound trash.
”I’m diligent about recycling everything,” said Pascal. “I’m just sick that they’re announcing to everyone to throw everything away.”
It is, however, not city policy. “That doesn’t sound like anything our agency would tell a resident,” Lyons said.