A voyage of discovery: hanging with the recycling crew in Bolton Hill

The COVID crisis was tough on city services, but from a consumer (and taxpayer) perspective probably no disruption has been felt more universally than residential recycling collection. 

COVID struck so many workers early in 2020 that weekly pickups collapsed. Some of us hauled stuff to Sisson Street station or other city yards. In some parts of town trash and recyclables flowed into streets and alleys. The city distributed 65-gallon blue recycle bins in the fall of 2021, which some residents welcomed and others rejected as ugly and not easily kept out of sight in an historic district like ours.

Then in January 2022 DPW announced a “temporary” reduction in pickups from weekly to biweekly. DPW’s director told a skeptical city council in June that the new recycling bins were making recycling routes across the city longer and forcing the need for a comprehensive routing study. So far, no route changes have been implemented and DPW refuses to predict when weekly pickups will resume.

On Oct. 7, I rode some of the recycling route that winds from East Baltimore through Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill and then further west and north. Driver Gregory Neal and two guys on the back of the truck, George McNeil and Maurice Barrow, worked to complete our route, known as 45003, that requires 2,973 stops along streets and alleys before ending their day late in the afternoon. They start at 6 a.m., and have no coffee breaks or bathroom stops until the truck is filled and taken to northeast Baltimore to unload.

I joined them at the leisurely hour of 9, accompanied by a DPW minder, Doreen Moore. She once drove a city recycling truck but after 26 years at DPW now coordinates drivers and staff and helps oversee services on five recycling routes each day, four days a week (20 routes each week). With biweekly pickups, each route is scheduled in an A or B route week. (Ours is a B-week pickup. The next pickup is Friday, Oct. 22.) Apartment buildings and businesses must use private haulers.

I saw that most of us are fastidious about separating our paper, plastic, glass and metals from other garbage and solid waste, but some residents mix them inappropriately. The three men on the recycling route are told to photograph and refuse to empty bins that are considered ”contaminated and unacceptable,” but to do so slows their operations. They refused no bins during our tour together, even though some were using plastic bags inside the bins, a no-no for recycling. As we rode together, Ms. Moore was constantly on the phone, sending a crew to pick up bins overlooked the previous day, and dealing with staffing and truck breakdowns on an app called Rubicon.

Typically, the driver moves the truck forward slowly while the men jog behind, picking up blue and smaller yellow bins, boxes and occasional paper bags of recyclables. They take 10 to 20 steps hauling, dumping and returning each bin or armful of boxes and bags. In narrow alleys like Lovely Lane or those in Spicer’s Run, the driver backs down the alley to its end. The pickup guys hang on the truck and then scramble behind it. On streets where no alleys exist, they dart around parked cars, adding extra paces for each bin.

I made a rough guestimate that by the end of their minimum 10-hour days our two slender guys had jogged between 5 and 6 miles, carrying or pushing bins. When the blue bins are filled, they can be placed on a lift that dumps them onto the back of the truck. However, about half the time a can, bottle or other item slips off and hits the ground. The workers bend to grab it, a pas de deux executed with trash in hand. Boxes and smaller bins get lifted and thrown onto the truck,which uses a heavy steel blade to compact mixed materials.

For this work the men on the back of the truck earn $16.88 per hour plus overtime many days, and benefits once they achieve permanent status. Drivers make more (as do workers who come through on garbage days). The city still is unable to hire, train and retain enough drivers to revert to weekly pickup, DPW says. Newly trained or hired CDL drivers often hang around just long enough to find a softer or more rewarding driving job in the private sector. 

McNeil and Barrow were substitute laborers. The two men normally assigned to our route, James Carter and Andrew Thompson Jr., were out with injuries. On-the-job accidents are common, ranging from a slip and fall to shoulder injuries to occasional fingers or arms caught in the truck machinery. Those who can work are given lighter duties at DPW facilities until the injury heals. Others use workers’ compensation leave.

Here are three ways that Bolton Hill residents can make recycling efficient:

  • Put plastic, cans, bottles and paper loose together, directly in the bins or boxes.  Do not put them in plastic bags, which cannot be recycled in this single-stream system and can jam machinery. Use blue or yellow recycling bins and/or sturdy paper boxes and bags. There is no limit to the amount of recycling per pickup, although the big bins seem adequate for most households.
  • Do not put recycling in a container used for other solid waste, and do not co-mingle recycling and trash in a blue or yellow recycling bin. Keep your bins separated. (Recycling is voluntary, but other garbage is picked up by a different crew on another day – Wednesdays in most of Bolton Hill.)
  • Break down empty cardboard boxes and stack them alongside your recycling bins. The number of boxes has grown exponentially (Thanks, Amazon!) since the pandemic made us order everything online. Boxes are bulky and take extra handling.

When a truck can hold no more recycling the two workers crawl inside the cab to go to the DPW Northwest Transfer Station at 5300 Reisterstown Road. On the day I was with them the truck halted pickups at Jordan and Mosher streets and headed out. It was noon, and Ms. Moore estimated their route was 45 percent complete. They unloaded at the northeast station, took a short break and headed back to Bolton Hill. I bailed out.

At the two-level transfer station, the recycling is offloaded from the city truck, compacted and then reloaded on a larger truck by a contractor who hauls the stuff to a recycling center in the county. Only there is it sorted, bundled and eventually sold or taken elsewhere. That’s another story for another day.

– Bill Hamilton