The Baltimore City Department of Public Works has “no firm timeline” for reinstating weekly recycling pickup and estimates it could take up to three years to resolve severe staffing shortages, optimize its collection routes, acquire needed vehicles and make software upgrades to get citywide service back on track.
That roadmap was laid out in a 28-page report released Monday, the same day that DPW’s director, Jason Mitchell, announced his resignation amid persistent criticisms of his management on multiple fronts, including on citywide recycling service and the city’s troubled wastewater plants. Mitchell said he is resigning for health and family reasons.
Just hours before Mitchell revealed his intent to step down after less than two years on the job, two City Council members had sent a critical letter to Mitchell setting an ultimatum: He needed to begin restoring weekly recycling services within eight weeks, or they would call for his resignation.
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 took a severe toll on the public works department. In 2020, the city suspended recycling pickup completely for months before returning the service on a weekly basis early the next year. Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration then scaled things back again to every other week at the beginning of 2022, citing similar labor problems.
DPW has been in a state of near-constant crisis management over the last year, dealing with an agencywide shortage of close to 700 workers, excessive sewage overflows into Chesapeake Bay tributaries at the city’s two wastewater treatment plants and E. coli contamination in West Baltimore’s drinking water. But the department’s scaled-back recycling services have drawn disproportionate attention.
“Telling our residents that a timeline is ‘ongoing’ or that they should expect certain deliverables one year or more from now is not an acceptable response,” Councilmen Zeke Cohen and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said of the city’s plans for restoring weekly recycling pickup, in a letter to Mitchell before his resignation announcement on Monday.
The agency’s new report, produced with waste management software company Rubicon, lays out a plan for DPW to achieve adequate staffing, fleet size and collection route planning to resume weekly residential recycling pickup and optimize weekly trash pickup by 2026.
Rubicon does not say directly whether it expects all of these steps will be necessary to get weekly recycling pickup back into place, but outlines what it defines as a “optimal” state for the agency’s waste management services. Over three years, the report suggests that Baltimore hires 48 new certified commercial drivers and 96 more solid waste workers, and purchase 48 rear-load garbage trucks — part of a series of moves it estimates will cost an additional $23.4 million outright, with about $11 million recurring annually.
DPW declined to make anyone available to discuss the report before publication. In an interview after this story published, Mitchell emphasized the importance of resolving equipment and truck shortages to restoring weekly recycling. The city ordered dozens of additional, specialized trucks months ago, and Mitchell said the department only needs about 20 of those reinforcements to arrive to reinstate weekly recycling. DPW is dependent on backlogged supply chains, the director said, but the agency is expecting some new trucks to arrive later this year.
“I’m hoping that — if things go well — that we can we can get this thing going a lot sooner than the 2026 deadline,” he said.
The state of recycling collection in Baltimore is in many cases annoying to residents who had grown accustomed to weekly pickup — but the issue is not unique to the city.
David Biderman, the executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, said that local governments were struggling with weekly curbside collection even before the COVID pandemic, although the pandemic has exacerbated the problems, particularly with hiring and supply chain issues.
And, he said, sticking with curbside collection every other week, instead of weekly, is a sacrifice local governments may have to make in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of their programs.
“Baltimore is a city that has a lot of needs. There’s a lot of demand from a limited budget,” Biderman said. “I can’t say specifically what the right balance is between some residents wanting the resumption of weekly service, and the broader system need to be sustainable, which may lead to less frequent service. That’s a balancing act that local governments have to do.”
As things stand, Baltimore’s waste collection routes are too burdensome to accommodate weekly recycling pickup, according to the report, which states that the city needs to create more routes of more manageable sizes. Trash pickup routes currently require 20% more stops than the industry average, according to the report, while recycling collection routes are twice the size of the industry standard. To resolve its route problem, Rubicon recommends that the city increase fleet size by close to 50% and add 144 new drivers and laborers.
The city already has 67 trucks on order, according to the report, but because of supply chain and other issues, it can take up to three years between the time an order is placed and when a truck hits the streets. The report says DPW has 18 garbage trucks in service that should be considered for “immediate replacement.”
Answering questions about curtailed recycling services on WYPR’s ”Midday with Tom Hall” program on Monday, Mayor Brandon Scott defended Mitchell’s record and emphasized the staffing and equipment challenges of reinstating weekly pickup.
Speaking with reporters about Mitchell’s resignation later in the day Monday, Cohen and Schleifer were critical of some aspects of the Rubicon report. The 2026 timeline, Cohen said, is “unacceptable.”
“We fundamentally believe that the city can do this,” said Cohen, who argued that the city can restore its weekly services by paying DPW workers more competitive wages and bringing on support from third-party contractors. “It does not need to take three more years for us to get there.”
Schleifer also questioned the agency’s arguments that the burden of reinstating weekly recycling pickup immediately is too high. The Northwest Baltimore councilman argued that City Council members have consistently offered to give DPW whatever it needs to reinstate weekly pickup and criticized administration decisions to invest in new initiatives, such as the $15 million “Clean Corps,” over shoring up basic services.
DPW spokeswoman Jennifer Combs said in a statement that the agency has been attempting to get help from third-party contractors since late 2021 without success, in part because the high number of alleyways in Baltimore require specialized trucks. The agency is looking at providing bonuses to bolster its workforce, and is waiting on the fleet of dozens of new waste management trucks — necessary additions to increase daily route counts in line with the Rubicon recommendations, Combs said.