Everyone knows a government shutdown could be bad for Washington, but it could also stink.
The most immediate — and odorous — impact of a closure for many D.C. residents would be the lack of garbage collection. Across the District, people are approaching a potential closure with a mixture of anger and nose-holding resignation over how bad it could get.
The District collects 500 tons of garbage and 100 tons of recyclables each week, so some portion of that could remain moldering in garages, driveways and alleys for days, Department of Public Works officials said.
D.C. officials said initially that trash collection would be suspended no longer than a week but shortened that estimate Friday afternoon to three days. Past closures show the lack of garbage collection could provide a few icky surprises.
“The best comparison to a government shutdown would probably be what happened last year during the big February storms,” said Linda Grant, a DPW spokeswoman.
“Snowmageddon” paralyzed trash collection in Washington for days because plows couldn’t clear many alleys. Garbage overflowed from trash bins at many apartment buildings and spilled out of some city cans. When the thaw came, snow mounds revealed unsavory centers of beer cans, stray gloves and other rubbish.
The District collects trash from 105,000 single-family houses and apartment buildings with three units or less. Other buildings in the city are served by private trash collectors, who should not be affected by a shutdown, Grant said. That means there could be a smelly dividing line between the trash haves and have-nots in the city.
If a shutdown was resolved before Thursday, normal trash service would resume the day the government reopens, Grant said. If a shutdown stretched past that day, regular trash service would begin again Thursday, April 14. That’s because officials would deem trash pickup an essential service, because rotting refuse would create a health hazard.
The group that would face the biggest impact is the roughly 70 percent of D.C. customers who have weekly garbage collection, Grant said. Even though those with Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday pickups could miss only one cycle, they would have to wait two weeks between collections. The 30 percent of D.C. customers with twice weekly collections would see service resume on the first regularly scheduled pickup day after the government reopens.
One bright spot is that the DPW would continue to collect refuse from the 4,500 trash cans at bus stops and in commercial corridors. And residents drowning in garbage during a shutdown would have a recourse: dropping off trash at the Fort Totten Transfer Station. It would be open Monday through Saturday during a closure.
Donald Milton, a professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Maryland, said going without trash collection for such a short period of time poses few health risks for the public.
“It’s more of an inconvenience than anything else,” he said, and, perhaps, a nice meal for the city’s rats.
Previous government shutdowns offer a few clues on how things might go. Volunteers cleaned up pounds of trash from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during a three-day shutdown in 1990. In 1996, The Washington Post reported that the National Zoo amassed piles of elephant, giraffe, hippo and rhino dung in an overflow parking lot because recycling the waste wasn’t deemed essential. Zoo officials said they don’t remember that, but animal waste would be collected this time.
Some D.C. residents don’t plan to wait for the garbage trucks to roll again if there is a shutdown — they’re taking matters into their own hands.
“It’s awful that they are doing this to our city,” said Nolan Treadway, who along with a friend has hit upon a novel idea to get rid of his trash: dumping it on House Speaker John Boehner’s lawn. As of Friday evening, more than 8,100 Facebook users said they would also attend the Saturday event.