A batch of recycling trucks newly arrived in Baltimore and 20 additional pickup crews will allow City Hall to resume weekly recycling services the week of March 4, Scott administration officials confirmed Tuesday, marking the end of reduced curbside pickups that first became unreliable at the pandemic’s outset in 2020.

The city received nine 2024 Peterbilt Model 220s last week — the order was placed in 2021 — and hired dozens of new drivers and crew members to reduce the vacancy rate on the Department of Public Works’ solid waste team to 8.5%, the lowest since before the coronavirus pandemic.

“We still have a few steps to go, but I’m confident that we’re now on track to return to weekly recycling the first full week of March,” Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement. The first-term Democrat had previously committed to resuming weekly pickup services by March 31.

The bolstered workforce and truck supply, along with revamped pickup routes, will allow crews to resume weekly services without any changes to which day of the week certain blocks receive curbside pickups, City Administrator Faith Leach said.

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“We’re trying to design this in a way where the resident doesn’t feel a change,” she said. “If you’ve been putting your recycling bin out on Tuesday, you’re still putting it out on Tuesday.”

Crews have been testing out the new routes in batches since last month, without making pickups, said interim DPW director Richard Luna, and supervisors have made small tweaks to the designs as necessary. Throughout the biweekly service era, some crews have used paper maps to guide them during pickups and worked upwards of 16 hour shifts.

Luna said the 20 new routes will reduce the total number of stops that each crew makes, while weekly rather than biweekly pickups mean that workers will handle less waste overall, reducing the amount of time and effort it takes to load bin contents into trucks. The reduced tonnage and stops “will be more closely aligned with industry best standards, which in turn means that we’d be able to finish the routes with 10-hour shifts,” he said.

Former mayor Jack Young suspended service for several months during the pandemic in 2020 and then shifted to biweekly pickup, citing workforce disruptions and increased recycling tonnage as residents stayed home. Scott brought back weekly services in January 2021, a month after his inauguration. But a year later, he cut back the service once again, citing the same difficulties as Young.

Reduced recycling services has been a persistent frustration during Scott’s first term. The City Council has held marathon hearings questioning DPW officials, some spanning more than five hours. Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, City Hall’s most vocal critic of biweekly pickups, frequently lambasted DPW, saying reduced services were unacceptable when the agency budget was growing. After Schleifer and Councilman Zeke Cohen fiercely criticized former DPW head Jason Mitchell in January 2023, Mitchell resigned just hours later.

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“What [Mayor Brandon Scott] advised me on when I took this role, is that it’s less about the white noise and all about the issues happening at DPW,” said Leach, who became the city’s chief administrative officer last year. “That’s why we came up with bringing back recycling in a way that was sustainable.”

She said that municipalities nationwide have struggled with supply chain delays in trucking equipment. “We skipped several people in the line in order to get these vehicles,” she said.

A particular challenge was finding and outfitting trucks that could navigate Baltimore’s narrow alleyways. Luna said that 60% of routes require alley pickups, meaning the larger recycling trucks that service most suburbs were not choices Baltimore could consider.

Abrar Abukhdeir, who manages the city’s fleet of vehicles, said recycling trucks are generally 115 inches wide, per industry standard, but the city’s alleys cannot accommodate a width larger than 90 inches. Over the years, workers at the city’s Department of General Services have trimmed mirrors, fenders and other parts of trucks to reduce width.

“We want to make sure our drivers are fully comfortable handling and turning these vehicles before we actually put them into full service,” he said. “It’s a very comprehensive process.”

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news. 

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