In some cities and counties, workers are no longer picking up bulky items or trash bags outside containers — efforts to encourage social distancing among workers and make the size of hauls more manageable.
Alan Phillips, a heavy equipment supervisor for the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, followed workers on their route Wednesday to ensure the safety of the crew.
In addition to issuing personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, officials sought to keep sanitation employees as physically separated as possible. Shuttles transported workers to routes in an effort to reduce the number of people sharing a garbage truck’s cab.
“We don’t know when this is going to let up,” Phillips said. “We’re all worried about our exposure, what we may be coming into contact with.”
As hard as they labored, sanitation workers on Wednesday left some customers wanting.
On Glen Forest Drive off Route 7, a chest of drawers — abandoned by a resident who hoped it would be taken away — was left near the curb. A woman exited her house to complain before quickly retreating when the new policies were explained to her.
In nearby Arlington, sanitation officials encouraged residents to drop off large quantities of cardboard at one of its recycling centers rather than leave it at the curb, and to “grasscycle” lawn clippings — that is, leave them on the lawn.
Like Fairfax, Arlington has suspended bulk collection because moving large items often requires that two or more sanitation employees work more closely than social distancing demands.
Amid a health crisis that has triggered stay-at-home orders across the region, officials say the reason for more residential trash — and a corresponding drop in commercial trash — is clear.
“We’re all but certain it’s people spending more time at home, cleaning out more,” said Peter Golkin, a spokesman for the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services. “The weather’s good — what else can you do when you’re at home?”
Golkin said trash tonnage is 38 percent above normal in the county, with slight increases in recycling. If the amount of trash continues to increase and crews can’t keep up, officials say, more limitations on curbside pickups are possible.
The threat isn’t limited to curbside pickup, Golkin said. He cautioned that the disposal of more flushable wipes and facial tissues could lead to clogged sewer lines — a problem officials would like to avoid in the middle of a pandemic.
“We’d prefer that they refrain from spring cleaning this spring and take a break. Don’t listen to your internal Marie Kondo,” he said, referencing the Japanese organizing guru.
Jeff DuVal, deputy director of the Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said the city has suspended yard waste and bulk material collection, as well as metal pickups, and has closed its household hazardous waste drop-off facility amid a 30 percent increase in trash volume. While Alexandria has not recycled glass curbside since January, DuVal said more glass is showing up in recycling because residents appear to be drinking more alcohol. Sanitation workers are wearing gloves, eye protection and masks.
“We’re trying to protect our folks, make sure they stay healthy,” he said. “We’re not firefighters, nurses or doctors, but we are on the front line making sure public health is looked after.”
In Maryland’s Prince George’s County, bulk collections are suspended as officials ask residents to store such items at home for the duration of the crisis. In Montgomery County, where residential curbside trash volume is up to 25 percent, the Department of Environmental Protection has discouraged unnecessary trips to its transfer station to limit employees’ exposure to the coronavirus.
“Do not bring any waste that does not require immediate disposal,” the county agency’s website said.
Willie Wainer, chief of Montgomery recycling and resource management, said the agency planned to issue masks to about 90 sanitation contractors. Employees typically work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., but some residential routes aren’t being completed until 7 p.m., even though the aggregate amount of trash in the county remains roughly the same.
“With the reduction in the commercial business and an increase in residential, it’s kind of a wash,” he said.
The District has seen an 8 percent increase in trash volume compared with a year ago and collected more than 6,700 tons of residential trash last month, said Felicia Farrar McLemore, a D.C. Department of Public Works spokeswoman.
David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a national industry group that is based in Silver Spring, Md., said the coronavirus-related trash surge has led to a 30 percent increase in residential trash volume in many areas, while trash collection has dropped in busy commercial zones.
“It’s happening nationally,” Biderman said. “It’s not a surprise to people in the industry.”
Commercial trash in dense downtown corridors has fallen nationwide as workers abandon their offices, retreating to residences where they generate garbage.
Depending on how a jurisdiction divvies up residential and commercial trash collection, government agencies and private companies can collect vastly different amounts of waste.
Mike Hellstrom, secretary-treasurer of Laborers Local Union 108 in New York, which represents private sanitation workers at the flash point of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, said his membership is facing an economic threat in addition to the coronavirus: lost work. Amid the drop-off in commercial waste tonnage, 200 of his members have been laid off since the crisis began, and overtime work has evaporated.
Still, Hellstrom said, sanitation workers will not be deterred from doing their jobs as long as there are jobs to do.
“We’ve been working in an infectious environment for our whole careers,” he said.
Update: This story was updated to reflect that Alexandria officials said Friday their sanitation crews have started to wear masks.