A Waste of Money: Why are Atlanta Residents Trashing Garbage Pickup?

By Cindy Morley
Investigative journalist for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation

For more than a year, residents in the City of Atlanta have been talking trash – or at least trying to – with city leaders and department heads. But it seems they have had a difficult time getting information about the lack of service, especially when it comes to recycling and yard trimming pickup.

In frustration, many have taken to social media. Facebook and Twitter have been burning up with comments and questions about the city services and what many consider a deterioration of services since COVID hit Georgia over a year ago. The comments have been going like this:

  • “For a long time, no one would pick up household garbage or yard clippings. Everyone blamed COVID. But as we started coming out of COVID, nothing changed.”
  • “They are quick to send out the bills, but not so quick to respond to our calls.”
  • “Even when they returned to household garbage service – it was sporadic, and they are still blaming COVID.”
  • “Finally getting my garbage picked up, but no word on yard clippings.”

In a Facebook thread on Atlanta’s Westview Neighbors page, residents traded stories about inconsistent pickup:

  • Quick check: anybody who’s trash day is today get their trash and/or yard trimmings picked up yet? Did y’all Thursday peeps get serviced yet? Last week they came well before this time
    • Good luck. I’ve been waiting to actually receive bins to put my trash/recycling in for a month now. Multiple calls to 311. They are backlogged and they can neither confirm nor deny that I’m in the system because my home is new.
    • Our trash was picked up, but the yard trimmings were not. Didn’t put the recycling out because I assumed we were still on the on/off week for recycling.
    • well this week was recycling lol both trash and recycling were collected today. Next week is yard trimmings but collections are delayed a day, then June 7th we go back to everything being picked up weekly

You get the point.

City residents were billed for their solid waste services in July 2020, paying around $500 annually for household trash service, yard waste pickup and recycling. The bills were paid, but “full” service still didn’t happen. Many residents say garbage service was sporadic at best. Recyclables were left untouched and yard trimmings were left on the side of the road, but no refunds went to city residents.

Meanwhile, in her 2021 State of the City remarks, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms thanked essential workers, including sanitation workers, “for keeping our city going during these difficult times.”

She added  “We shifted many of our City employees to teleworking and supported those on the front lines with $500 per month in hazard pay. This included our public safety personnel and our sanitation workers and many others who worked nonstop to keep our city running during this pandemic.”

Reduced or ‘modified’?

City officials do not consider the pickup changes to be reduced service, according to a post on the FAQs page of the Department of Public Works’ Office of Solid Waste Services.

“The changes being implemented by the Department, as result of the effects of the global pandemic and the ongoing State of Emergency, will not result in a reduction in the services being provided, only a modification to the frequency of the services. Accordingly, at this time the City is not anticipating a change in the rates for the short-term modification of the scheduled pickup of yard trimmings and recycling.”

Calls to the City of Atlanta have turned up little information. A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Waste initially responded that service has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have continued weekly trash service throughout the pandemic, while we did implement temporary service changes for recycling and yard clippings – providing this bi-weekly.” said Antoinette Govan. “The issues started with COVID, then it became an issue of lack of employees.”

The city announced June 1 that weekly recycling and yard trimming pickup service would resume June 7. Despite Govan’s statement that recycling and yard trimming pickups have taken place every other week since mid-February, some residents say they have been without service for months.

Atlanta is not the only municipality to feel the staffing effects of the pandemic

Asked whether residents could expect a refund or credit for the fees they paid over the past year, Govan asked that questions be put in writing, in an email. Then her response repeated – verbatim – the paragraph from the FAQs page: that it was “not a reduction in the services being provided, only a modification to the frequency of the services,” and that the city “is not anticipating a change in the rates for the short-term modification.”

Atlanta is not the only municipality to feel the staffing effects of the pandemic, but other local governments have not shut down services.

Macon-Bibb County struggled a little early on in the pandemic but continued services, said Chris Floore, Chief Communications Officer.

“The landfill has been in and out of service because of COVID, and we had a few moments where we had to shut down, but those were isolated incidences,” Floore said.

Contracting services

Household garbage service and recycling are contracted out to a private company in Macon-Bibb, while the county handles pickup of yard trimmings.

The company, ADS/Waste Management, announced late last month that “due to severe staffing shortages,” it could not fully staff its fleet of vehicles and was running behind on collections. Garbage is collected weekly and recycling is picked up every other week, on garbage pickup day. (Yard trimmings are picked up every other week). Residents pay Macon-Bibb $20 per month for the service.

Floore said the company “had some problems with personnel, but they worked hard to stay caught up.” The company has been offering signing bonuses, but people are not applying for the jobs, he added.

“Fifteen started the process of applying after the last job fair. Only five completed it.” The sign-on bonus: $5,000 for any drivers and diesel technicians who remain employed for at least 12 months.

“This is not a COVID issue. This is a result of people not working,” Floore said. “It’s a shortage of personnel; this is definitely an employees’ market.”

Floore said officials are telling people to be patient if service is delayed a few days: “They are working as hard as they can and trying to stay caught up. We tell our residents that if their garbage is not picked up on schedule, leave the trash can out, and they will get to it in a day or two.”

Savannah doubles up

Savannah’s Residential Refuse Collection Department collects trash and yard waste once a week from city residences; the regular residential charge starts at about $36 per month — about $432 annually. A spokesman for the Public Works Department said all sanitation services have “stayed up and running.”

“We were short-handed at times, but we always continued our services: household garbage and yard waste. We never missed a pickup, even if we had to run double shifts.”

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, as far back as 1996, maintained that for the city of Atlanta to prosper, “it must privatize, consolidate city and county services, and improve employee accountability.”

Outsourcing services and managed competition – in which government departments can compete in bidding with private companies to provide a service – could help improve efficiencies and give taxpayers bang for their buck. As Atlanta residents watch how city government resumes services, they may well be asking themselves why it’s taking so long for the city to consider this route.

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