Garbage is a rare subject at your average cocktail party. But in the District, trash — or the cans it goes in, at least — is a trending topic.
It started with the rush delivery of more than 200,000 shiny-new cans before the city’s primary election last month. That led to the odd problem of trash can proliferation, with old cans waiting weeks to be picked up and streets and alleys overflowing with extra bins.
Then there was the arrest and lockup of a little-known District artist for trying to repurpose (as flowerpots) several of the old cans that had been plastered with “Take Me!” signs. And the city’s overcorrection of the languishing can problem, which officials dubbed a “blitz” — cleared away not just unwanted cans, but even some recently delivered ones.
And now, it turns out that the city has not been recycling thousands of the cans, as the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) had promised — but chucking them instead.
City officials admitted Tuesday that sanitation crews dumped at least 132 truckloads of plastic bins — a third of the more than 16,000 old cans collected last week — alongside city waste and hauled them all off to Virginia to be incinerated.
A spokeswoman said that throwing away the cans was ultimately a safety decision made after streets and alleyways became overly congested.
The episode presents a setback to the District’s effort to reinvent itself as a well-managed city after decades of complaints of dysfunctional services.
“It’s an embarrassment — it’s Trash-CanGate,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the committee that oversees the city’s trash collection. “The cans were rushed out right before the election . . . and this is the continuing byproduct of a badly initiated and badly run program.”
The months-long drama has tarnished a program to replace — at a cost of $9 million — every city trash and recycling receptacle for the first time in a decade. And it has left several lingering questions: Did a vulnerable mayor accelerate delivery of the cans to secure votes in his unsuccessful bid for reelection? Despite years of planning, why didn’t the city have a better plan in place to collect the old ones? And will prosecutors really go through with charges against two people for the theft of cans that no one wanted?
Tuesday’s admission by Gray’s Department of Public Works offered the most concrete example to date that the effort had gone off track — and a new round of hand-wringing about government accountability settled in over the John A. Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who tried to stop Gray’s replacement plan last year because of the way the mayor proposed paying for it. Gray tapped a flush budget-reserve account to pay for the new cans.
In some neighborhoods, rodents had chewed holes through the old plastic cans and wheels had fallen off, leaving the bulky cans all but immovable for some residents. Across much of Northwest, however, many cans remained operable, especially downtown, where collections are made twice a week and residents had more recently been issued new cans.
Many of the new cans were delivered in the two weeks before the April 1 Democratic primary. They came with “Take Me!’ stickers to affix to old, unwanted ones, but the city had no plan to retrieve them. Officials expected residents to call 311 to schedule a pickup; meanwhile, rain deluged the city, washing off stickers and leaving it unclear which cans were old and which were new.
Next, Public Works Director William Howland responded by ordering a “blitz”, telling crews to pick up any can left on a sidewalk or in a public alley. But as the effort sped up, residents across Northwest reported seeing not the flatbed trucks that had been carrying away the old cans, but D.C. garbage trucks, which swallowed up and compacted the cans as if they were the week’s trash or recyclables.
Several residents near Catholic University said their trash bins were taken, filled to the brim with garbage.
Teresa Ahmann, a North Michigan Park resident who went to the city’s Fort Totten Transfer Station last week to drop off trash, said she was aghast at the sight of more than 100 crushed trash and recycling bins mixed with two mountains of garbage.
“I hate to be disgusted with the city I have lived in for some 40 years, but it seems inescapable sometimes,” said the Northeast resident.
Chris Weiss, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Network, said the city’s acknowledgment was “disappointing.” With Gray advocating for a sustainable D.C. and even pushing to ban the use of plastic foam containers in the city, Weiss said: “This sounds like a great missed opportunity.”
Gray was traveling Tuesday for a conference in Las Vegas and unavailable to be interviewed. His spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, sought to distance the mayor from the controversy, saying Gray was “not aware that they were throwing away the cans.”
Every briefing the mayor’s office had received from Howland, Ribeiro said, “it was always said they would be ‘recycled.’ ”
Linda Grant, Howland’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that congested alleyways and safety drove the decision to discard the cans. “Under these circumstances, where safe movement was compromised, the benefit of improving safety exceeded the cost of not recycling,” Grant said. “Of course, residents’ interest in getting the cans removed ASAP was a motivator as well.” She said the cans were sent to an incinerator in Virginia.
The District has a contract to return unwanted cans to the manufacturer in North Carolina. But Grant said that the process is labor-intensive and that the city has delivered about 26,500, less than half of the total 71,000 cans collected.
Grant stressed that the 5,300 that were trashed represented “just 7 percent of all cans collected.”
As for the remaining cans, officials say they will eventually take them to North Carolina. But they haven’t finished collecting all of them.
Pictures of the old cans mixed with trash likely won’t help the city successfully prosecute a Northeast artist and her friend, who were arrested, briefly jailed and charged with theft last month for allegedly taking about 50 of the abandoned cans to use as flower planters.
In a criminal information, the District argued that by taking the cans, the two acted to “deprive” the city of “property of value” and potential profits from recycling the cans, which, to replace, will still cost residents $45 to $62.50.