For the past several months, American Disposal Services, Prince William County’s top trash hauler, has struggled with a truck driver shortage that has resulted in missed or delayed pickups and dozens of complaints.
Now the company is on the hook for another problem: trashing source-separated recyclables with regular household garbage.
According to Prince William County records, American Disposal Services has been cited at least four times between April 17 and May 11 for mixing the contents of residents’ recycling containers with the regular trash. That’s a violation of county code that carries a $500 fine for each infraction, meaning the company has been charged a total of $2,000 in fines since April.
The number of fines – and overall complaints -- is unusual, said Scott MacDonald, recycling manager with Prince William County’s Solid Waste Division.
The division usually receives only a handful of complaints about private trash haulers each quarter. Since February, the office has fielded at least 39 complaints, including 22 for missed collections and eight for mixing recyclables with the regular trash, MacDonald said.
Complaints about trashing recyclables are not taken lightly, MacDonald said.
County staff used to stake out neighborhoods to try to catch haulers in the act. More recently, MacDonald has deployed wildlife cameras in the front yards of residents who call to report such infractions.
That’s how American Disposal Service employees were caught in the act of throwing both recyclables and trash into the same trucks on four different occasions in April and May.
“People really get infuriated when they see that. That’s why we try really hard to respond to those complaints,” MacDonald said. “They’re relatively easy to catch.”
Of the 15 private trash haulers who operate in the county, nine pick up residential trash. American Disposal Services is the largest operator in the county, fielding about 60 permitted trucks, MacDonald said.
American Disposal Services has already paid the $2,000 in fines. Kevin Edwards, the company’s general manager, said mixing recyclables with trash happens from time to time, “just in the ordinary course of business.”
Sometimes, it happens because drivers and workers, especially those assigned to new routes, make unintentional mistakes. Other times, he said, drivers admittedly “cut corners.”
“I can tell you for sure it’s not something that we, as a company, promote,” Edwards said. “…We coach our people to separate the trash and recycling and not to break the rules.”
Edwards said the company typically pays some money in fines to Prince William County each year for inadvertently breaking rules either on the routes or, more typically, at the landfill.
The latter can happen when too much cardboard, which is supposed to be separated from regular trash, ends up in commercial trash containers. But having four violations in one month for mixing up residential trash and recyclables “is a lot,” Edwards said.
“That’s not something we normally have an issue with,” he added, saying the problem is “a personnel issue we’re working through.”
The company was recently sold to the much larger Waste Connections, based in Houston, late last year and has been struggling with the ongoing nationwide truck-driver shortage. But Edwards said neither is directly to blame for the infractions.
American Disposal Services’ woes are not limited to Prince William County. The company is also the main hauler in Fairfax County. According to its solid waste division, there have been at least 143 complaints about missed pickups between Jan. 1 and May 1, county spokesman Matthew Kaiser told Inside Nova.
It’s not clear if American Disposal has been cited for other infractions in Fairfax. Kaiser was still checking those records as of press time.
The truck-driver shortage is due to many factors. Fewer drivers were needed during the Great Recession, resulting in some drivers leaving the profession. Now, baby boomers are aging out of truck-driving jobs at a time when new jobs are harder to fill because of competition and higher safety standards, according to a 2015 report of the American Trucking Association.
In 2014, there was a shortage of 38,000 truck drivers. That number is projected to spike to nearly 175,000 by 2024 if current trends continue, the report said.
Garbage truck driving jobs are especially difficult to fill because of the long hours and tough working conditions, MacDonald said.
In March, the county sought to relieve some of the haulers’ financial pressure by changing recycling rules to allow glass to be sent directly to the landfill. That’s where most of it ended up anyway as recycling “residue” after being crushed by single-stream sorting machinery at plants run by American Disposal Services and other private companies.
That move was prompted by changes in the international markets, which have caused resale prices for recyclables to plummet. Countries like China and India, which once bought most of the United States’ recyclables, have imposed sharp restrictions on imports in an effort to clean up their own countries, which now produce more of their own recyclable refuse.
“We’re doing what we can. It’s difficult when you have a large company that’s struggling,” MacDonald said. “It’s not entirely their fault.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org