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Could COVID-19, staffing problems mean holiday trash collection delays?

National industry association warns of problems

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Dewey Edwards, equipment operator for Wasatch Front Waste & Recycling District, collects recycling in Herriman on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Will your holiday trash pickup be delayed in Utah due to staffing shortages brought on by COVID-19 and a lack of waste haulers?

A national industry association representing more than 10,000 private and public sector waste management professionals warns that staffing is a problem in multiple areas across the country, including Nashville, which announced earlier this month plans to eliminate curbside recycling — at least for now.

“A substantial percentage of front-line collection workers are not vaccinated, and some may get sick from COVID in the coming weeks,” said David Biderman, executive director and chief executive officer of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

“This could make it difficult for some haulers or local sanitation departments to fulfill all of their collection obligations, at the same time that residential waste and recycling volumes increase around the holidays. We urge all solid waste officials and haulers to plan for how they intend to address a shortage in collection workers.”

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Wrapping paper stuffed into a plastic bag sits in a recycling bin in Herriman on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Recyclables should not be enclosed in plastic bags. This will prevent your items from being recycled.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Has Utah been hit with the staffing shortages and is it feeling the effects? Yes and no, at least in Salt Lake City.

“The staffing shortages are something the industry has been struggling with for some time, similar to commercial trucking,” said Sophia Nicholas, Salt Lake City’s deputy director of sustainability.

“Even though we are constantly hiring, the staffing has never gotten so low it has become a problem.”

The city expects no disruptions this holiday season or into the future.

Nicholas says she believes the city is better off than some other areas around the country because it employs its own workforce of haulers, offering competitive pay and benefits. She said it took steps recently to make city employment more attractive and is always keeping an eye on market rates.

“We haven’t seen quite the dramatic impacts that have been experienced nationwide, and probably that does also connect with our pay being better than it is nationwide for some of these haulers,” she said.

Pam Roberts, general manager of the Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District serving about 86,000 homes in multiple cities in Salt Lake County as well as the unincorporated county, said the government organization has not been immune to staffing issues. It has tackled it with increased wages to boost retention and recruitment.

“The board has been very supportive of the need to increase driver wages to meet the salary market demands for CDL drivers,” she said.

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Dewey Edwards, equipment operator for Wasatch Front Waste & Recycling District, collects recycling in Herriman on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Edwards collects recycling from approximately 1,000 cans a day.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Of the 63 driver positions, the district averages five vacancies but there are 11 management and administrative staff that also have a commercial driver license who can pitch in and help.

Ironically, during the onset of the pandemic, Roberts said the district had no turnover in staff because of the promise of job security and the fact that those in waste management services were dubbed “essential service providers.”

Business also increased, so to speak, because as more people stayed home, more waste piled up.

The district’s board recently approved another salary increase which reduced vacancies from seven to four, she said.

Roberts said the district’s experience with COVID-19 paces with that of Utah and when there are spikes, she sees the spikes in the workplace.

“Thankfully we have not had to cut back services,” she said.

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Dewey Edwards, equipment operator for Wasatch Front Waste & Recycling District, collects recycling in Herriman on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

So while hiring is a constant challenge in the industry, collection schedules are tracking on time and recycling and other refuse programs remain in place in those areas in Utah.

Nicholas directed people to the city’s sustainability blog and in particular, wise ways to recycle and the Wasatch Front district also has information on recycling.

Where it is possible, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources says it is not always necessary to drag that Christmas tree to the curb, even in cities that offer that curbside pickup.

Dean Mitchell, a former conservation outreach section chief with the agency, said with just a little effort, residents can turn those old natural pine trees into a haven for songbirds, transforming them into a bird feeder.

Mitchell wrote in a post for the agency that just about any treats can be used by hanging them using string or ribbons, including stale bread or other bakery products. Residents can also adorn the tree with apples or oranges that have been cut in half, cereal tied in net bags, or strings of popcorn or cranberries. Peanut butter or nuts of any kind can be smashed into the crevices of the pine cones.

A brush pile stacked with old conifers can serve as nesting sites, dens or cover for animals that include squirrels, weasels, cottontail rabbits, skunks and snakes. Because of the nature of some of these animals, residents will not want to place the brush piles too close to their homes, the division warned.

Mitchell said the brush piles need to be at least 5 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet in diameter and placed in a grid pattern.

There are many other suggestions for useful tips on how to use old, natural Christmas trees posted on the division’s blog.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly identified Pam Roberts as Pam Rogers.