Dan Parker wants to talk trash.
Actually, he’s been talking trash for more than six years. Parker’s job at Durham’s Solid Waste Management Department brings him up close to the discards and undesirables of the city’s residents.
But the last seven months of the pandemic brought a load unlike any other for Parker and his team.
Since COVID-19 shuttered businesses, restaurants and schools, entire cities are ordering takeout and delivery. Parker said people are shipping instead of shopping in stores and finally finishing home improvement projects. Across the state, that generated an uptick in single-use plastics, cardboard and construction materials.
“For all the years that I’ve been in the industry, we always say, ‘Hey, we think we’ve seen it all,’” Parker said. “I’ve never seen this.”
It’s not hard to imagine why. Consider: On a usual quarantine day-in-the-life, a morning coffee comes in a paper to-go cup, cardboard sleeve and plastic lid.
Waste count: three.
Then, maybe you make a sandwich for lunch. But on your lunch break, the doorbell rings. It’s the electric wine opener you ordered on Amazon because your friend raved about it on Facebook. It came in a corrugated cardboard box with packing peanuts and plastic wrap.
Waste count: six.
Now, you’ve got a bottle of red wine open quicker than ever, and you realize the perfect pairing is a margherita pizza. It gets delivered in all its melty glory atop a sheet of parchment paper, which does nothing to prevent the grease from soaking through the cardboard box. With it, comes a stack of flimsy paper napkins and a plastic cutlery set wrapped in – oh, yes – more plastic.
Waste count: 10.
For one person, this doesn’t seem like much, but county and municipal waste departments are seeing this on a large scale.
Record tonnages, shifts in output challenge local waste haulers
Wake County’s waste tonnages jumped by a few thousand from 2019 to 2020, showing significant increases in collection of food waste, cardboard, textiles and construction waste. Garbage and recycling– specifically for cardboard – for March, April and May of this year were significantly higher than last year, said Bianca Howard of Wake County’s solid waste department.
Raleigh recorded its highest annual tonnages for residential garbage and recycling in April 2020.
Donald Long, director of Solid Waste Management for the city of Durham, also said his department’s collection tonnages increased over the last few months.
Orange County’s waste department specifically saw more take-out containers in the recycling bins and an increase in cardboard, said Kyra Levau, recycling education and outreach coordinator.
What the data doesn’t show is how waste collection and transportation workers coped with the increased garbage while maintaining social distancing. Garbage and recycling teams adjust to increased volume and new safety precautions, all while having family at home or children in online school.
“It really is so challenging that you took your ordinary job and turned it on its head,” Parker said. “Because we can’t stop. We can’t stop because we have to get the waste out.”
But it’s not just the new age of takeout meals that’s flowing into the waste stream, said Mary McClellan, executive director of the Carolina Recycling Association.
“Because of the massive work-from-home shift and the decreased use of business and commercial spaces, there has been a great increase in many communities of waste generated at the home and less waste being generated in commercial establishments,” she said in an email.
She said she’s noticed local governments resorting to overtime hours, reducing special pickup services, temporarily altering routes and adding more bulk collection.
“Across the board, local governments are under a bit of stress,” said Carol Abken of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. “Because of the pandemic, there’s some local government revenue shortfalls and also increased expenditure needs during the pandemic. And recycling programs are not exempt from these pressures.”
It’s a simple problem: high demand, lower supply. But programs throughout the state are generally holding strong, Long and Abken said.
Long said his department reduced yard waste collection to every other week to move more workers to garbage collection. The other challenge his department – and others – face is what to do when a driver gets sick. Long said he’s only had one worker test positive for coronavirus so far, but his team feels the strain even if there’s suspicion that someone is exposed.
“That one driver testing positive [initially] sent six people home to quarantine,” Long said, which presents challenges in covering shifts.
“We have to put a Band-Aid on that,” Long said. “The most important thing to us – not just during a pandemic, but anytime – is getting the garbage off the street.
Long, Parker and their teams are essential, and their work has only become more difficult and more necessary during the pandemic. Workers drive up and down Durham’s neighborhoods before returning to their own to deal with the same stressors facing the residents’ whose trash they just collected.
But, surprisingly, Long said, morale is high.
“I have a workforce that takes pride in the job they do,” Long said. “They take pride in the fact that they are faced with big obstacles and still manage to get it done.”
Mondays and Tuesdays usually bring in the highest volume, he said, and his fleet sometimes takes two days to complete pickups instead of one.
Some residents, he said, noticed and complained.
Think and look before you recycle
“There’s a lot of things that go on that folks don’t even realize,” Parker said. “[Waste management] is not something that just happens.”
Most people learn the basics of recycling in grade school. At some point during that crash course, the chasing arrows symbol translated to “recycle me,” but Howard said it’s not that simple.
A typical black, plastic to-go container with a clear lid should go in the trash. Single-use plastics like cutlery and straws are also rubbish, said Matt James, environmental specialist for North Carolina DEQ.
“Contamination is the general term for anything that goes into a recycling cart that doesn’t belong there,” James said. “One of the big issues of contamination is this thing we call ‘wish cycling.’”
Ever stood over the recycling and garbage bins, eyes darting from side to side, looking puzzled with a deceitful looking plastic in hand? James is talking about the moment you throw it wistfully into the recycling without researching if it’s actually recyclable.
“In truth, only plastic bottles, tubs, jugs and jars are actually recyclable,” Abken said.
Crystal Dreisbach, the founder of Green To Go in Durham, wanted to eliminate restaurant trash even before the pandemic. Her company partners with local restaurants to offer reusable takeout boxes through an app.
Take the margherita pizza that went with your wine. Nearly 3 billion single-use cardboard pizza boxes are thrown away in the U.S. each year.
“That means a whole lot of greasy cardboard boxes that no matter how the poor cities and counties try to educate people, are very confusing about what to do,” Dreisbach said. “If you end up putting those in the garbage, you feel pained inside because you used that box for maybe an hour. And it doesn’t even fit in your kitchen trash.”
Besides bringing reusable containers or using a service like Green To Go, patrons can opt out of napkins, utensils or condiments from restaurants. If they come with the meal automatically, ask to return them.
“Don’t go full ‘Karen,’ we don’t endorse that,” McClellan said. “But shoot for maybe a Kary.”
Many city and county waste management departments also publish garbage and recycling guides on their websites and social media. And if your garbage is on your curb a little later than normal, know that a driver will be coming soon.
“We are all doing the best we can,” Howard said.
Story author Molly Weisner and graphic artist Claire Willmschen are both seniors at UNC Chapel Hill who produced this story for the UNC Media Hub. Click here to learn more.