Quarantine cleaning creates woes for solid waste, recycling

BY KATE COIL

As residents use their time at home to conduct spring cleaning, municipalities across the state of Tennessee have reported limiting both solid waste and recycling programs amid increased volumes of materials and concerns for employee safety.
Surveys conducted by the Tennessee Municipal League of cities statewide found that public works departments were the municipal departments most likely to be shorthanded as a result of the pandemic with 19.73% of cities - nearly one-fifth of respondents - reporting they were understaffed in these departments.
A dozen cities also reported they had limited public works services and 13 reported having closed or limited use of a municipal recycling center because of concerns that the virus could continue to live on plastic material.
Kim Schofinski, deputy communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), said there have been noticeable changes to solid waste and recycling as a result of the pandemic.
“In response to COVID-19, some counties and municipalities have changed their hours of operation for landfills, convenience centers, transfer stations and/or household hazardous waste collection centers to support appropriate social distancing practices for customers and staff,” she said. “Tennessee has seen commercial volumes of landfill waste decrease while household and residential waste has increased. This change is expected to fluctuate as portions of the economy safely reopen. Tennesseans – including those who work in the solid waste industry – are encouraged to follow the CDC’s recommendations for proper use and disposal of PPE. TDEC’s website contains information related to the proper disposal of medical waste.”
The city of Franklin announced the suspension of its Blue Bin Recycling program since the recycling processor, Marshall County Recycling, halted its services. Franklin City Administrator Eric Stuckey said recycling could still be dropped off at Williamson County facilities.
The town of Jonesborough also suspended recycling collection citing concerns over the safety of handling plastic. Residents were instead encouraged to store recyclables until the town could create a drop-off point at its recycling center.
Kingsport announced it would pause its recycling program beginning on May 1 because of the downturn in the market.
“This is due to a national trend that has drastically impacted Kingsport’s ability to market the majority of the material collected,” said Deputy City Manager Ryan McReynolds. “The largest material the city collects, mixed paper, was being sold for $88 per ton. Currently, it costs negative $3.75 per ton, meaning our partner [WestRock Converting Company] has to pay people to take it. With the pause on our recycling program occurring now, it gives our sanitation department time to review other options for the future of the program. It doesn’t make sense at this time for us to spend time and money collecting this material, sending it out of our area, and more than likely, having it end up in a landfill anyway.”
Metro Nashville Public Works also limited operations of convenience centers to Saturdays only. Drop-offs at the centers were limited to recyclable materials and up to three bags of household trash. Pleasant Hill Mayor Lisa Patrick announced that the recycling offered at the town hall would be suspended in the community, asking citizens to instead drop-off their recyclables at the Recycling Center itself.
Knoxville, Milan, and Oak Ridge also reported limiting or halting brush pick-up services because of the strain on public works.
Throughout the state, many communities hold “spring clean-up days” that encourage residents to tidy up their homes and yards, often allowing the disposal of large items or items usually not collected by public works or solid waste crews. However, the lack of resources to pick up these items compounded by concerns of virus spread have led many cities to either postpone such events or cancel them completely.
The city of Clinton postponed its planned April clean-up day, which takes items normally not accepted during weekly household garbage pickup, to May 4. Brentwood canceled its spring clean-up day encouraging residents to wait for the Fall Clean-Up typically held between October and November. Goodlettsville, Oak Ridge and Germantown also postponed community clean-up dates with no future dates set.
Lebanon also postponed its two-week clean-up period until the fall. Lebanon’s decision was a combination of the fact that public works resources were still being used to clean up from the March 3 tornado outbreak.
Other communities who contract their services to private companies also found their trash and recycling services limited as those companies adopted new collection protocol and made contingency plans.
Waste Connections announced that it would be limiting trash and recycling pick up to “content of carts” only to cities it served nationwide based on recommendations from the CDC, WHO, as well as state and local health officials.
Waste Connections also limited what it accepted at convenience centers open to the public, like the one located in Oak Ridge. The facilities only accepted normal household waste and recycling with bulky items and yard waste no longer taken. Company officials reported they were being “overwhelmed” by the amount of waste and number of people showing up to drop off bulky items and were concerned that the number of people at facilities could increase the spread of COVID-19.
Cities contracting with Republic Services, who is in the process of acquiring Tennessee-based Santek Waste Services, also announced changes to trash services as a result of COVID-19.
“Republic will not service any trash outside of the containers as we are trying to limit exposure to our drivers during this time,” according to a company statement. “Additionally, in order to best protect and limit the exposure to our employees, the bulky item program pick-up at curbside will be suspended until further notice. These measures are effective in all communities that Republic Services provides trash service.”
Numerous landfills operated both by county solid waste departments and private companies also announced they would be limiting services.
Geoff Trabalka, supervisor of Anderson County Solid Waste Management, said the county’s Chestnut Ridge landfill has seen a large increase in volume since the stay-at-home order was issued by Gov. Bill Lee on April 2. The landfill serves county residents and citizens of Clinton and Norris as well as some residents of Oak Ridge, Oliver Springs, and Rocky Top.
“All of these activities produce a large quantity of added material to the waste stream,” Trabalka said. “In the last two weeks, Anderson County has seen an extreme increase in waste being brought to its convenience centers, and to the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, particularly on Saturdays. This has raised the volume of garbage being hauled to 1.5 to 2 times the normal volume. Yard waste and bulk waste items like furniture and appliances are a great portion of that increase.”
Bi-County Solid Waste, which operates convenience centers in Montgomery and Stewart counties, serves cities including Clarksville, Cumberland City, Dover, and some residents of Tennessee Ridge. The convenience centers reported an “increased volume of materials, scheduling circumstances, and staff shortages” all related to COVID-19.
“Debris that normally comes in over the course of several months is now coming in all at once in large volumes,” Bi-County Director Mark Neblett said. “Bi-County will continue providing services however, we need residents to work with us to bring larger items and loads to the main landfill scales. We also request that our convenience center workers be treated with patience as they have been advised to make discretionary decisions based on box space and traffic flow.”
The Rutherford County landfill also reported receiving three times the usual volume of material since quarantining began. The landfill serves cities including Eagleville, La Vergne, and Smyrna as well as county residents. The amount of waste being dumped combined with the fact that the average age of the landfill’s employees is 63 prompted the decision to limit waste to only one bulk item and no building material.
“At the rate they were doing two weeks ago, if we had not slowed them down, our centers would have closed Saturday and we still would not be able to have them open,” said Mac Nolan, Rutherford County’s solid waste and landfill director. “The residents are really frustrated with it and I understand that, but at least we have them open.”
Located in Brighton, the Tipton County landfill serves residents in Atoka, Brighton, Burlison, Covington, Garland, Gilt Edge, Mason, and Munford. Shannon Reed, director of the landfill, said traffic was backed up on the highway leading to the landfill for half a mile on April 12 with residents who had been at home using the time to clean up. Reed said traffic is up at least 40% since the stay-at-home order was issued but the landfill itself is working with limited employees. The recycling program also ground to a halt.
“The reason [recycling has stopped] is it’s been said the virus lives on plastic for three days and cardboard for 24 hours,” Reed said. “This virus is living on surfaces for a long time, so I can’t take the risk of having to shut my entire workforce down. We’re just trying to make it.”
Williamson County Solid Waste, who also serves citizens of Brentwood, Fairview, Franklin, Nolensville, Thompson’s Station, and parts of Spring Hill, also announced they were limiting customers to dropping off household trash and recycling.
In an effort to comply with social distancing guidance, the various solid waste departments have all asked residents to comply with their social distancing measures at the centers, such as allowing only one individual to unload at a time.