D.C. to launch garbage-can ‘blitz’ to clean up eyesore of thousands of abandoned cans


Dozens of trash cans await pick up last week in an alley between T Street and Westminster in Northwest Washington. District officials are struggling with a weeks-long backlog to pick up the cans (Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post)

Following a public outcry over tens of thousands of unwanted trash cans littering D.C. neighborhoods, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced Friday that he had approved as much overtime and additional staff as necessary to clear up the problem.

On the eve of the city’s first push into 90-degree weather, Gray’s Department of Public Works said it would conduct a “citywide blitz” beginning Saturday to remove all old, unwanted Supercans, 32-gallon trash cans and 32-gallon recycling cans from public space.

The department blanketed the city with 210,000 new trash cans beginning in March. The overhaul of the city’s trash receptacles was the first in a decade and came as Gray was seeking to bolster public opinion of his administration heading into what proved to be an unsuccessful run for reelection.

The District paid contractors to deliver the new cans with lightning efficiency, but relied initially on an informal call-in system to identify the old cans that residents wanted carted away. In the first two days after the deliveries began, officials say the city received 1,500 calls for takeaways, but thousands more people simply affixed city-provided stickers identifying the old bins as trash and left them outside, officials say. The city has been scrambling since to catch up.

Public works officials said they never anticipated that residents would seek to discard almost as many cans as the city delivered. About 60,000 cans have been removed and sent to a recycling center, but DPW Director William O. Howland Jr. acknowledged Friday that “many thousands more” remain in alleys and along city streets, awaiting removal.

“We have had requests to remove thousands of old, unwanted cans, and when we go to these addresses, we find two, three and four times the number of cans for which we have requests, and that volume overwhelmed our resources to collect them in a timely manner,” Howland said in a statement.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the department “misjudged” how many residents would want their old cans removed and how much staff the city would need to pick up the old cans. “It ended up being far more labor-intensive,” Ribeiro said.

The city’s announcement came a day after The Washington Post reported that the cans had become a nuisance in many neighborhoods and that two women had been arrested for carting off cans in Georgetown to repurpose as flower planters.

The two told authorities that they believed the yellow “Take Me!” stickers the city had distributed for the old cans meant just that.

Ribeiro said the mayor’s decision was not based on news media reports but on customer ratings, which had plummeted for DPW.

The administration had told D.C. Council members that removal of the remaining unwanted cans would take four to six weeks. Ribeiro said that with the additional resources the city was prepared to deploy, the mayor hoped to measure success in “days, not weeks.”

Public Works posted a schedule on its Web site for the first time Friday alerting residents when sweeps for unwanted cans would be conducted.

Complicating matters, city officials said, is that it’s no longer clear to sanitation crews which cans residents want removed and which ones they intend to keep. The yellow “Take Me!” stickers distributed with the new cans were not waterproof, and in last week’s deluge, many fell off. There is also no requirement that all decade-old cans go.

Howland said the burden falls to District residents to clear from city streets and alleyways the cans they want to keep.

“Residents who want to keep their old cans MUST take them from public space (alleys and curbs) and put the cans on their own property after their collection day, otherwise the cans left on public space will be removed and not returned,” the DPW said.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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