City of Houston

Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department clarifies messaging about collection delays, says they’re ‘nothing new’

Residents can continue to expect delays in yard waste and recycling pickups, according to department director Mark Wilfalk, who says it’s coping with an ongoing staffing shortage.

Recycling Bin
Paul DeBenedetto / Houston Public Media
An overflowing recycling bin sits near a curb in northwest Houston on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

The director of Houston's Solid Waste Management Department said recent posts on its Facebook page mischaracterized its ability to collect yard waste this week and might have caused confusion among impacted city residents.

An Oct. 7 post, along with a pair of subsequent posts early this week, said a staffing shortage would cause residents to "experience service interruptions" between Oct. 10-17. Those residents also were encouraged to take their grass clippings, leaves, tree branches and other discarded materials to one of the city's six neighborhood depositories.

Those dates had been removed from the posts as of Wednesday morning, when department director Mark Wilfalk told Houston Public Media he previously had been "very concerned" about the department's ability to make yard waste pickups this week after the recent resignation of 10 drivers. Wilfalk also said it would have been more accurate to say those weekly pickups would be delayed, because the service has not been suspended.

"Trust me, service gets interrupted every week," Wilfalk said. "Here in Houston, the more appropriate term would be delayed. We're saying we may not collect it on that Tuesday (as scheduled, for example), but we're going to come get it on Thursday or Saturday."

Wilfalk said residents also can expect biweekly recycling pickups to be delayed, which he described as typical for a department that has about a 15 or 16 percent vacancy rate – equating to a staffing shortage of more than 50 drivers. The department also has a back order for 20 new trucks, because of supply chain issues, he said.

Wilfalk said weekly pickup of regular trash, along with bimonthly heavy trash pickups, are operating on schedule and at full capacity because the department has dedicated adequate resources to those services.

Residents experiencing delays in yard waste and recycling pickups can leave those items on their curbs until they are collected, according to Wilfalk, who said the department suggested utilizing the six regional depositories in case residents want those materials removed more immediately.

Tonya Knauth, president of the civic club for the Garden Oaks neighborhood in Northwest Houston, said she received notice about potential service disruptions on Monday from the office of Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the area.

"I was surprised at the sudden news about the disruption,” Knauth said. “I think residents count on that service and would have liked to know further in advance. It's unlikely many of us are going to take grass clippings, for example, to a city site, so I think those are likely to go in the trash."

Leo Brito of Zero Waste Houston, a local composting company, said yard waste being placed in regular trash cans could put a strain on the city's garbage pickup service. He suggested that if Houston residents were asked to place all of their compostable food waste in the same bags as their yard clippings, that would reduce the volume of regular trash pickup and could allow the city to allocate more resources to collecting the compostable materials.

Wilfalk called that an "excellent recommendation" but said more research and coordination would be required before implementing such a practice. The city's existing agreement with Living Earth, which processes the yard waste after it's collected, does not cover food waste, he said.

Wilfalk said his department also aspires to one day incorporate composting into its services – the city conducted a free composting pilot program at three collection sites last year – but does not currently have the resources for such an undertaking. He said the department is working to educate residents about doing their own composting, which would help reduce the need for yard waste services.

Advocates say there’s more work to do.

"What concerns me is that we're going backward and not forward," Brito said.

Services will improve and increase as driver vacancies are filled, Wilfalk said, and the department regularly participates in job fairs to search for new employees. The city also has offered $3,000 signing bonuses to new drivers since last summer, but that has not helped fill all the vacancies as the city continues to lose drivers and compete with private companies that can offer better pay.

Wilfalk said the Solid Waste Management Department also is trying to get creative in an attempt to better serve city residents. The department improved the reliability of its heavy trash service by contracting three private companies to help make pickups, funded through a $3.5 million resource allocation by Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to Wilfalk, who said a similar model could help with yard waste and recycling collections.

Wilfalk said he also favors a garbage fee for residents as a way to increase revenue for a department with a $95 million operating budget. The city implemented fees of $1.14 each last year to lease garbage and recycling bins from the city, generating an estimated $5.3 million in avenue revenue.

"It's not enough to cover the services we provide to our residents," Wilfalk said.

For now, Houstonians will have to continue to cope with service delays, and the Solid Waste Management Department will have to continue to make do with its current staffing level. Wilfalk said the department welcomes new applicants, including those who have been incarcerated and are looking for work.

Residents experiencing collection delays can drop off their yard waste and recyclable materials at any of the following city depositories, which are open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, except on city-recognized holidays:

North – 9003 N. Main St.

Northwest – 14400 Sommermeyer St.

Northeast – 5565 Kirkpatrick Blvd.

Southeast – 2240 Central St.

South – 5100 Sunbeam St.

Southwest – 10785 Southwest Fwy.

"It's nothing new, nothing that folks haven't already experienced," Wilfalk said of pickup delays. "I'm pretty sure if you take a poll, a survey of residents, about how many times they had on-time yard waste collections, the numbers are not going to be great."

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