Vincent Gray expresses regret for bumpy trash can replacement, says he’s ‘not happy’

Mayor Vincent C. Gray expressed regret Wednesday for the city’s botched distribution and collection of tens of thousands of trash and recycling bins, including the possible incineration of thousands of unwanted cans that were supposed to be recycled.

“I’m not happy about the way this has gone,” said Gray (D), who ordered the replacement of garbage and recycling bins across the city during his failed bid for a second term in office. “We set out to do something good for the people of this city.”

The distribution of the new cans, welcomed by many households whose old cans were chewed through by vermin or had broken, was marred by an inadequate plan to pick up the old or unwanted cans.

William O. Howland, director of the Department of Public Works, said Wednesday that his agency did not expect residents to want their unwanted cans picked up so quickly. In previous replacement cycles, he said, the department did not make a special pickup after delivering new cans.

“We thought people would sort of try to hold on to their cans a little longer,” he said. “We just did not anticipate the demand to come as quickly as it did on removing those cans.”

Howland also took responsibility for the improper disposal of thousands of unwanted cans that had been collected by trash crews, crushed in compactors and sent to an incinerator in Lorton, Va.

But no one is quite certain whether the bins have been burned yet — or even whether they have arrived at the incinerator.

Howland said he ordered trash crews to collect cans after their routes to try to address complaints about the unwanted bins crowding alleys and sidewalks. When the cans were compacted, he said, they became mangled, making it impossible to remove the bins’ metal parts for recycling.

“We just said we were going to take that loss,” Howland said. “It was whatever it took to make this story go away. It won’t go away.”

Howland said Wednesday that about 5,300 of the more than 70,000 cans that were collected had been sent to the incinerator. In a subsequent news release, his department said that the cans had not yet been destroyed, adding that they “will be transported” to the facility.

Linda Grant, an agency spokeswoman, later said that the trashed cans “should be gone by now.”

But James Regan, a spokesman for Covanta Fairfax, which operates the Lorton waste-to-energy plant, said it had not yet received any truckloads of plastic cans from the District.

Regan said the facility typically incinerates plastic inadvertently mixed with solid waste but still meets all Virginia and federal emissions rules. But he said that given the volume of plastic involved, when the trucks arrive, the facility will evaluate whether the bins can be burned safely.

Tens of thousands of cans remain at various city locations waiting to be sent to North Carolina for recycling. But before they can be shipped, Howland said, city workers must manually remove a metal bar and wheel axle using power tools.

“It’s a tedious process, but we’re committed to stripping them down that so we can recycle those cans,” he said.

Gray defended his decisions to rush the replacement of the trash and recycling bins, compressing what was once conceived as a multiyear process into the span of a few months — concluding about the time of the April 1 primary.

Politics, he said, had nothing to do with the short time frame.

“What we wanted to do, frankly, is to try to be able to get the cans to people as quickly as we possibly could,” Gray said. “If there was some political motive, we could have picked ‘Neighborhood X’ or some particular precinct or something like that. We didn’t do any of that.”

Gray, who has touted a broad environmental sustainability plan during his years in office, said that residents shouldn’t consider the bins’ disposal a blemish on his record on the issue.

He noted that the replacement effort provided residents with larger recycling bins to encourage more recycling: “I don’t want to send the message to anybody in this city that recycling is unimportant, because it is hugely important.”

Neither Gray nor Howland would comment on the case of two D.C. residents who were arrested and charged with theft for taking dozens of unwanted cans — for use as flower planters, one has said.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the committee that oversees the Public Works Department, said she sent a letter Wednesday to Howland asking questions about the can replacements.

“I don’t think there was any appreciation for how haphazardly this was thrown together until it happened,” Cheh said. But she added that Howland retains her confidence leading the department: “Everybody has difficult moments.”

A spokesman for Gray said there were no plans to sanction any officials. “Trash was still picked up, wasn’t it? It’s been blown completely out of proportion by a newspaper with nothing but room to fill and subscriptions to sell,” said Pedro Ribeiro, the spokesman. “It doesn’t rise to the level of people losing their jobs.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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