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Gray Unhappy With Trash Can Pickup Problems, But Says Politics Played No Role

Getting new trash cans hasn't been a problem for many D.C. residents, but getting rid of old ones has.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Getting new trash cans hasn't been a problem for many D.C. residents, but getting rid of old ones has.

Call it Trash-CanGate or Garbage-BinGhazi, but Mayor Vincent Gray wants D.C. residents to know one thing: He isn't happy with how the city has fared on picking up tens of thousands of old trash cans and recycling bins.

"I'm not happy about how this has gone," said Gray this morning, addressing ongoing questions about what at first seemed like a resident-friendly achievement: replacing the cans that many residents use to dispose of waste and recyclables. "We set out to do something good for the people of this city."

Earlier this year, Gray announced that all households whose refuse is picked up by the D.C. Department of Public Works would be getting new 96-gallon Supercans and 64-gallon recycling bins — 210,000 cans in all, at a cost of $9 million.

Crews started distributing thousands of the new cans throughout the city in February, but they didn't attend to the other side of the equation: What to do with old trash cans and recycling bins.

Residents started complaining about trash cans clogging alleys and crowding sidewalks, even though they had dutifully affixed the "Take Me!" stickers provided by DPW. Earlier this month, the city announced a pickup blitz, but then ran into another problem: It was caught trashing the cans instead of recycling them as had been promised.

An exasperated Gray addressed the issue at his biweekly press conference.

"The piece of it that we really have not done a good job on is the picking up the cans and then getting those cans taken care of them in an appropriate fashion, especially consistent with our own recycling goals in the city," said Gray.

DPW director Bill Howland said today that the agency is mostly caught up, having collected 71,000 Supercans so far. Of those, though, some 5,300 were picked up in traditional trash trucks and compacted, making it impossible for them to be recycled. Still, he said, 93 percent of all the Supercans and recycling bins would ultimately be recycled.

"I regret that this happened, and I don't want to send a message to anybody in this city that recycling is unimportant, because it is hugely important," said Gray of the cans that were trashed.

Gray also denied that there was any political motivation in the sudden rollout of the new Supercans and recycling bins, which the D.C. Council worked to defund last December. He said that the new cans had nothing to do with the April 1 primary, which he ultimately lost to Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).

"If there was some political motive, we could have picked neighborhood X or some particular precinct, and we didn't do any of that. We tried to get them out to everybody we possibly could in the city as quickly as we could because people wanted them," he said.

As to why DPW fared so poorly in picking up the old cans, Howland said that his agency hadn't ever collected cans on a citywide scale.

"We never collected cans in any meaningful way," he said, saying that in the past residents would simply ask trash trucks to take old cans. "We just did not anticipate the demand to come as quickly as it did to removing those cans."

Howland did put positive spin on the fiasco: He said that the new, larger recycling bins have increased residential recycling. In March, he said, recycling among 105,000 residential customers increased by 17 percent above the monthly average of 28 percent. In April, it was up 15 percent.

Still, D.C. has a ways to go on recycling: Howland wants to increase the recycling rate to 35 percent, which is still less than what city law calls for (45 percent) and what Gray has said he wants to see (80 percent).

As for the couple that was arrested and charged for stealing 51 recycling bins with "Take Me!" stickers on them for an art project, neither Gray nor Howland had any comment.

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