Baltimore’s short-staffed public works department has no timeline yet for resuming weekly curbside recycling pickup since scaling back the service at the start of this year.

Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell told city council members during a quarterly briefing Wednesday that, even if the agency is able to boost staffing levels again, they’re “still going to have some challenges” returning to a weekly recycling schedule.

Recycling services in Baltimore have seen a series of interruptions and scale-backs since the start of the pandemic, as labor shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks have taken a severe toll on the Department of Public Works. First, the city suspended recycling pickup completely for almost five months in 2020, before reinstating the service on a weekly basis. After Mayor Brandon Scott’s election, the city returned to weekly services, but scaled things back again to every other week earlier this year, citing similar labor problems.

Some city council members have criticized Scott’s administration for not allocating more funding out of the city’s $641 million in federal pandemic stimulus towards restoring curbside recycling pickup. City leaders have responded that waste management curtailments are the result of lacking manpower, not limited funds.

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Asked for updates on recycling plans by Councilman Mark Conway and Councilwoman Danielle McCray at Wednesday’s hearing, Mitchell said the department has partnered with a consulting firm for an evaluation of the city’s trash and recycling services, including ways of optimizing pickup routes. The resulting report should be released later this year, and will lay out short- and long-term pathways for the city to restore weekly recycling pickup, he said.

Public Works Deputy Director Richard Luna told council members Wednesday that the agency had close to 700 open positions last month, for a vacancy rate of 25%. “Critical” gaps are concentrated in the department’s solid waste division and among commercially licensed drivers, Luna said.

In the department’s Bureau of Solid Waste, nearly 100 positions remained unfilled as of last month, for a 14% vacancy rate. The volumes of trash that Solid Waste collects have also climbed since the start of the pandemic, from a monthly average of 10,500 tons in 2019 to more than 12,600 tons last year, according to figures provided by the department last month.

The department is in the process of acquiring 50 new trucks to bolster an aging fleet of vehicles, said Yvonne Moore-Jackson, acting bureau head for the department’s Bureau of Solid Waste, a process expected to take a year or more.

City Administrator Chris Shorter told council members earlier this year that the Department of Public Works had submitted requests from the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act funding totaling $205 million. Moore-Jackson said the department has received $10 million of the COVID-19 stimulus for solid waste facility upgrades.

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The city has also dedicated close to $15 million from the federal stimulus package to a new initiative called “Clean Corps,” aimed at paying residents to clean their own neighborhoods. The program will target up to 15 communities in eligible neighborhoods of East, West and South Baltimore. Grant recipients for that program have not been announced.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government. 

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