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More working from home means we’re generating more residential trash

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Workers sort recycled materials at a Maryland facility. Compared to pre-pandemic times, more refuse is being generated by homes and less by businesses.

Workers sort recycled materials at a Maryland facility. Compared to pre-pandemic times, more refuse is being generated by homes and less by businesses. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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In a typical April, May and June, the city of Nashville, Tennessee, picks up about 600 tons of garbage from honky-tonks and businesses downtown, according to Sharon Smith, the city’s assistant director of public works. But this year, she said, “those numbers have just plummeted.” 

By 77%. Meanwhile over the same period, residences in Nashville generated 13% more garbage. The city had to redraw collection routes, and trash collectors have been working longer days. 

“It costs more to do all that. And every time there’s more trash set out and our tonnage goes up, of course there’s an additional cost at the transfer station for disposal,” Smith said. 

Commercial trash collectors can’t just switch gears and start picking up residential trash. The waste streams are different, even the types of trucks — front-end dumpster collectors versus back-loaders. David Biderman of the Solid Waste Association of North America said residential trash was up by as much as 25% during the pandemic. He said cities could pay workers overtime or hire more workers, but those are both options that cost money cities don’t have right now. 

“Local governments have much higher expenses and lower revenue as a result of the decline in economic activity that’s resulted from COVID,” he said. 

At the same time, when residential sanitation workers were most needed, they were also getting sick, said Kate O’Neill, author of the book “Waste.” 

“Like many other frontline, essential workers, they had to work in close conditions. Workers in many cities were 30% absent at one time,” she said.  

Some cities responded by suspending curbside pickup of bulky or electronic items … or pausing composting programs. And others have just fallen behind on picking up trash. New York City Commissioner of Sanitation Kathryn Garcia said the city had to cut back on emptying sidewalk trash cans. 

“While we aren’t able to go and collect the waste, people haven’t stopped putting it in the litter baskets,” she said. “Just reducing the service doesn’t necessarily change the behavior of people across the city.”  

In Nashville, Smith said the decreased costs of commercial trash pickup are balancing out the increased costs of residential pickup. For now.

“As the honky-tonks start reopening and as we start to see more tourism in the downtown area, we’ll be able to shift resources back to that area that are being used elsewhere,” she said. 

But as long as people are still working from home, they’ll still be tossing more stuff away … at home. 

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