Mayor Vince Gray just wanted to give District residents new trash cans and bigger recycling bins, and if it happened before the April 1 Democratic primary where he was seeking another term, would that be so bad? But the seemingly benevolent gesture ended in disaster—a disaster that kept getting comically worse before the mayor and his team could clean it up.
The D.C. Council had originally approved legislation to replace the city’s aging trash bins over a five-year period, with the first phase of the project funded in 2014’s fiscal year budget. But, for reasons that Gray insists had nothing to do with the upcoming election, the mayor decided everyone should get their new receptacles this year. (After the Council objected to his plans to pay for the more than $9 million replacement project, Gray used the city’s contingency fund to cover the costs, which didn’t need legislators’ approval.)
And it worked. Sort of. Most of the 210,000 shiny new containers—32-gallon trash bins and 48-gallon recycling bins—made it to residents by April 1. The only problem? Retrieving residents’ old trash bins within 10 days of delivering the new ones wasn’t as smooth.
New bins were delivered with “Take Me” stickers that residents were supposed to put on the old ones they wanted disposed. But they were also supposed to call to notify the city to actually pick them up, which wasn’t as clear. Soon, blocks overflowed with unwanted trash and recycling containers. And then it rained, and many of the “Take Me” stickers washed away, and no one could decipher which bins people wanted to keep and which they wanted to trash. Neighbors worked together to find creative ways to line up their cans to keep some semblance of order, but trash bins are trash bins, and after weeks—some bins were delivered in March and weren’t picked up until May—of sitting around, some of them just ended up playing house to rodents and passersby trash.
The whole thing turned absurd when two residents were arrested for stealing bins with “Take Me” stickers on them in Georgetown for a supposed art project. The Department of Public Works said it was overwhelmed with all the unwanted bins and, days after the Washington Post reported on the situation in early May, the city announced a week-long pick-up blitz. (The city said the timing of the blitz announcement and the damning article was a coincidence.) And then the blitz swept up some bins residents had wanted to keep.
What had gone wrong? The city’s line was that it miscalculated the numbers and assumed more people would want to keep their old bins than actually did. The city only started charging people for new cans in 2011—during a citywide distribution, which occurs less than once a decade, they’re free—so the agency thought more people would want to keep their bins so they wouldn’t be charged for a new one if they needed it in the future. All in all, though, the whole thing seems to have been poorly thought out from the start. Like the old programming adage goes: garbage in, garbage out.