Not Everyone Got Word On New Trash Schedule

Officials Expect City Residents To Take Time To Adjust To Shift

July 15, 2009|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,

The city trash truck rolled slowly backward down the Wyman Park alley early yesterday morning, its veteran driver responding to calls from the two-man crew tossing cans and bags into the back like a choreographed dance routine.

Only there was nothing routine about this day. Yesterday was the start of the city's new trash and recycling program. It was the first big change in four decades, and these workers and residents were facing shifts that sparked both hopes and fears.

Hopes were for a city that recycles more, throws away less and keeps its streets and alleys more tidy. The main fear was of a rat buffet of trash not promptly collected.

"People don't seem ready," said Albert Mullen, the driver, pointing to a house with no trash set out for pickup at about 7:30 a.m., an hour and a half into the new shift.

That got a nod from Reggie Ware, the only man on the team of three who had worked the neighborhood before. "Trash does seem lighter," he said.

Until this week, Baltimore had been one of the few major cities to pick up trash twice a week, but city officials have moved to emphasize recycling. Under the new system, the city will haul away trash once a week and recycling collection will increase from twice a month to weekly.

Officials sent 178,000 postcards, made over 200,000 automated phone calls and talked to the news media to inform residents. And yesterday, some still put out the trash on the wrong day. More than 1,600 called the city's 311 information line in the first day and a half to ask about pickup, fewer than officials were expecting.

Some asked about recycling. Valentina Ukwuoma, head of the city's Bureau of Solid Waste, said most items in the trash are recyclable but only about 35 percent of residents recycle them. Last year, Baltimore crews hauled away 200,000 tons of trash and 15,000 tons of recycling. Ukwuoma believes the balance will now tip.

Some residents, such as Sarah Ali of Hamilton, are doing their part. Ali grew up in Toronto, where trash was collected once a week and most everyone only needed one can because of heavy recycling. She said the program will work in Baltimore if everyone does the same thing.

"From my experience here, the neighborhood is very supportive of 'green' lifestyles," she said, "and up to this point about half of the neighborhood is already recycling."

Brian Ryder of Highlandtown agreed that the city shouldn't have to provide twice-a-week trash pickup, but because that's what residents are used to, it will take time for everyone to adjust.

"So many people do not store their trash until pickup; they simply throw their kitchen trash bag directly into the alley - or at the end of the alley for anonymity," he said. "This happens any time during the week. It just so happened that with twice-a-week pickup, this practice would sort of work. Now it will not work at all and I can already tell in my neighborhood that no one has a clue of the change. It's going to take some convincing [fines] to get people to change this habit."

Joanne Stato, who lives in Washington Hill, said there are also logistical issues. Not everyone has cans, so supplying them would do a lot for participation. Though those without good alley access to their backyards still have to drag the cans through their homes or leave them out front.

"The fine is $50, which my landlady already had to pay once," she said of leaving them out front. "My upstairs neighbor has to haul his trash can up a flight of stairs and keep it inside the house for a week! Not good."

Further, she said, the winter would have also been a better time to start a program so the piles of trash wrongly left outside won't rot in the hot sun.

City officials say they will tinker with the program as needed. They plan a 90-day grace period from fines for putting trash out on the wrong day or putting out more than the limit of 96 gallons' worth. They will continue to fine residents for piling trash at the end of the street or alley. That's illegal dumping. They will likely go easy on those who don't have lids if the cans are only out on trash day. They are considering supplying cans.

"We'll take some time and see what's working," Ukwuoma said. "This is a big change for them and us."

In the meantime, Terrance Perry, another man on the Wyman Park crew, is preparing for longer days and heavier loads that will come with extended routes and fewer pickups. He hopes residents tie up their bags so trash doesn't spill onto the streets as he tosses it from the can into the truck.

Ware hopes people stop trying to fight rats with poison coatings on their trash bags. Last week, he sprayed his face and chest with bleach from one bag. He and his co-workers all wear protective sunglasses, hats and heavy-duty gloves. The workers all support the city law requiring tight-fitting lids on their cans.

"Opossums and rats get in there if you don't," said Perry. "We never know what we're going to find in there."

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