Recycling day came and went. But it wasn’t until four days later that an automated truck from the Solid Waste Management Department drove through Sarah Winkler’s Alief neighborhood to empty the green bins, which in the meantime had blocked parking and fueled frustrations.
Such delays have become Winkler’s new normal. “This is the third cycle in a row that it was picked up late,” she said. “It’s not acceptable.”
Hundreds of hours of equipment downtime a week at Solid Waste Management Department are leading to recycling delays throughout Houston said the department’s director, Harry Hayes. Often, there are not enough drivers for all of the trucks. Other times, the need for maintenance forces aging trucks to remain idle until one of the mechanics, who are also shorthanded, can make repairs.
The department then has to reallocate the remaining trucks to make sure all the garbage routes are covered, often diverting recycling resources.
This past Saturday and Sunday, days pickup crews normally have off, the Solid Waste staff worked overtime to catch up on the week’s missed recycling routes. “We thank your patience as we move beyond these issues,” read an announcement of the rescheduled recycling pickups.
But Winkler said that if the delays persist until this summer — when 69 new trucks costing $14.6 million are joining Solid Waste’s fleet — she may stop recycling altogether.
“If that happens, we’ll have to figure something else out, just like we did after Harvey,” she said. “I don’t want to hassle with this from now to this summer, for heaven’s sake.”
Hayes said delays can be resolved much sooner if the labor shortage is addressed, which would allow the current trucks to cover their routes. “If you eliminate the downtime, we’re on schedule,” he said.
To that end, the department is trying to recruit 20 to 25 new drivers and roughly the same number of mechanics, and has gotten the go-ahead to make new hires despite the city’s freeze. However, a shortage of drivers and skilled labor nationwide means that the city is competing with fierce demand from the private sector, which can often offer higher salaries.
City Council members, as they considered purchasing new trucks earlier this month, said that missed trash and recycling pickups are the number one complaint they receive from constituents. “We receive at least 20 to 30 phone calls every day about missed pickups,” said Council Member David Martin at the meeting.
Council Member Martha Castex-Tatum estimated 70 percent of the calls her office receives relate to trash and recycling. “Last week, the recycling was not picked up, and it rained and recycling was floating down the street,” she said.
In response, Mayor Sylvester Turner invoked a recent voter-approved initiative, which he opposed, to pay firefighters the same amount as police officers of equal rank as a strain on the resources.
“Let me point out right now,” Turner said. “We are going to begin the implementation of Proposition B — so resources are going to get thinner.”
Proposition B may soon become entwined with the future of the city’s recycling. Houston is the only big city Texas that does not charge a monthly fee for residential trash or recycling, instead covering the services as part of its general budget, supported by taxes. Council Member Dwight Boykins has suggested changing that in order to cover increases in firefighter’s salaries.
He projected that if the city charged $25 a month and service remains the same, the city could earn $107 million a year — about the same amount Proposition B is projected to cost.
But the recent delays have caused some to balk at the idea of paying.
“If they’re going to charge, it’s going to have to get a lot better,” Winkler said. “I don’t want to pay for service this bad.”