Coming Monday: Ecological Alternatives in Garden Debris Management

By David Pendered

The task of solving Atlanta’s shortcomings in collecting garden debris has landed on the desk of Al Wiggins, the public works commissioner who has been in office since March 1 and has inherited a challenge that dates back to at least to 2011.

Some homes in Atlanta are set behind lawns as free of debris as the fairways of championship golf courses. (Photo by David Pendered)

Wiggins do not look back. He looks forward to the city hiring a private sector contractor to provide curbside pickup of leaves, branches and other yard debris. Atlanta’s solid waste department serves around 100,000 customers, and some are complaining loudly that the city has staggered to a twice-monthly collection of yard debris, from a once-a-week program, amid a nationwide labor shortage that has hit the solid waste section of Atlanta.

This is the fifth solution in recent months attempted by the administration of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to add staff in the sanitation section. Atlanta is in the midst of the nation’s labor shortage, and it’s being felt across the country by entities collecting waste of all types – household, recycling, garden. Staffing challenges include competition for local truck drivers due to the boom in door-to-door shopping online; pandemic reasons for workers to stay at home; and extended unemployment benefits, according to a report by the national business group, Solid Waste Association of North America.

The yard waste problem notwithstanding, Atlanta was able to maintain the collection of garbage and recycled products, Wiggins said. Wiggins cited this as his first point in a 37-minute conversation:

  • “We have always been able to ensure consistency in the collection of solid waste. After solid waste comes recycling. Yard waste is # 3 on the list, simply because if the other items go without collection for a long time, it becomes a health and sanitation problem.

This Atlanta sanitation truck is equipped with a mechanical arm for picking up a trash can. (Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Department of Public Works)

Wiggins did not mention the other duties of the department. According to a page in the city’s current budget, the Department of Public Works is responsible for the collection and disposal of solid waste; waste reduction and recycling; post-closure management of landfills; street sweeping; mowing of the right-of-way; removal of dead animals; Keep Atlanta beautiful; and help with citywide emergencies.

Wiggins has represented the department at Atlanta City Council committee meetings throughout the summer, instead of sending an envoy. Council member Andrea Boone describes the commissioner as being sensitive to concerns raised by voters in her District 10 in southwest Atlanta.

Atlanta’s previous efforts to deal with the garbage collection staff problem include:

  • Reduce the garden debris collection schedule from once a week to twice a month, which is recommendation # 1 of the SWANA business group, in its short and long term solutions package;
  • A signing bonus of $ 500;
  • A $ 3 per hour incentive, called Prime Pay, for certain job classifications;
  • Emergency tender documents to hire temporary workers from the private sector. Several companies refused for reasons such as liability issues for workers facing snakebites, animal attacks and the dangers associated with working on moving trucks and using machines that pick up limbs. and other heavy objects.

The latest request for proposals is ongoing, Wiggins said. Two lawn care companies have expressed an interest in collecting garden waste. Collecting yard debris is a niche that is beyond the reach of most garbage haulers.

“Waste haulers aren’t interested in this type of work,” Wiggins said. “There may be two bags of leaves in front of the house, or an entire border lined with fallen trees. The severity of the items placed at the curb will determine what type of vehicle or collection method will be used. “

In 2011, this flyer distributed by Atlanta touted the weekly collection of yard waste, an indication of the relevance of the service at the time. (Image courtesy of Atlanta)

Waste haulers are ready to handle a known amount and type of material, Wiggins said.

The problem with yard waste remaining on edging is not related to broken equipment, Wiggins said. It was 2017, according to then-commissioner William Johnson’s comments. Fleet maintenance is under the supervision of Wiggins and he said the equipment is working. The problem is a shortage of workers ready to do the job, just like their counterparts in other cities, Wiggins said.

Collecting garden debris was an issue long before 2017, when council rejected the commissioner’s call to raise tariffs to buy new trucks and address other concerns. In 2011, the city cited the continued weekly collection of garden waste as a benefit of the tariff hike imposed that year.

Here’s how SWANA described the reasons for the current labor shortages:

  • “Truck driver shortages have been well documented due to the strength of the economy and the increased demand for trucking services caused in part by the substantial growth in online shopping and door-to-door delivery services….
  • “COVID-related illnesses, school closures and the lack of affordable child care options that force employees to stay home. These impacts are felt by many other service industries, including the restaurant industry;
  • “Extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks that deter workers from returning to the workforce. “

Note to readers: The Ministry of Public Works is recruiting. For more information click here.

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