Upside down recycling bins abandoned by D.C.'s DPW
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

Last week, a Shaw resident came up with a rather feudal solution to a modern Washington problem: She appealed to the nearest Prince.

For more than a month, old garbage bins had languished on a corner of the 1600 block of 4th Street NW. Like neighborhoods across the city, Shaw had received new 32-gallon trash cans and 48-gallon recycling “SuperCans” in March; residents who followed the Department of Public Works’ instructions had emptied their unwanted old bins, placed a “Take Me” sticker on them, turned them upside down, and called 311—repeatedly, with no luck. By early May, the old cans lined both sides of the block’s sidewalk.

Gabriela Schneider, a communications director at a nonprofit who lives on the block, finally got fed up last week, snapped a picture of the nearly comical number of bins, and sent it PoPville—the breathless neighborhood blog formerly known as Prince of Petworth—for a royal assist. The Prince posted the photos, and the city picked up the bins within days.

“I think that helped,” Schneider says. “I also think the front-page story in the Washington Post helped…Kudos to the city for finally taking action after being embarrassed on the front page of the local paper.”

She might be onto something. Last week, DPW announced a weeklong “removal blitz” to pick up the worn-out bins that had been replaced by the new cans the city rolled out this spring—but only after complaints about unwanted trash and recycling receptacles proliferated across the city. With extra city funds approved by Mayor Vince Gray, DPW employees are working overtime to pick up thousands of orphaned bins throughout the city. Before the blitz started, DPW said it had already removed 60,000 old bins but had “many thousands more” to go.

The D.C. Council originally approved legislation to replace the city’s waste and recycling bins over a five-year period, with the first phase of the project funded in the current fiscal year’s budget. But Gray wanted each household to receive its new cans this year, and proposed to largely fund the more than $9 million project through the city’s retiree health-care fund, arguing that the fund has performed well in the stock market. When the Council rejected the plan in December, Gray turned to the city’s contingency fund to pay for the bins immediately—money he didn’t need legislative approval to tap.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee that oversees DPW, says if Gray stuck with the original plan, a debacle could have been avoided and a blitz would have been unnecessary. “Where did he get the money? He got it from the rainy day fund. Which is not an appropriate use of the money,” Cheh says. “They created the problem by doing this in a flurry while there was an orderly process planned.”

Gray successfully pushed to have the bulk of the 210,000 new cans delivered by the end of March. But April 1 came around, Gray lost the Democratic mayoral primary, and the unwanted trash bins still littered the city’s alleyways alongside the new ones. To some residents who previously hadn’t expected to get new bins this year, it looked like a lame-duck mayor had rushed to deliver their new cans before Election Day and then lost interest in retrieving the old ones.

“It seems like ‘they didn’t vote for me, so let them stay with their trash cans for a bit,’ ” Schneider says.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the mayor, says Gray, too, is frustrated by the slow pick-ups. While the mayor secured the funding for the bins, Ribeiro says he left it to the presumed experts at DPW to implement the trash-bin swaps.

Throughout April and into May, the unwanted cans became complaint fodder on neighborhood email lists and blogs. The trashcan mayhem even turned criminal, when two people were arrested for allegedly stealing some Georgetown trash bins with “Take Me” stickers for an art project. “We followed the directions to arrange for our old cans to be removed, but they are still here, weeks later. Has anyone had any luck personally delivering them where they need to go? Sure would love to have my back yard back,” a resident wrote to the Hill East listserv.

DPW initially said it planned to pick up all the cans within 10 days of when customers called 311. But on March 31, DPW issued a press release saying it was overwhelmed by the number it needed to pick it up—three times more than it had anticipated. DPW had expected more residents to opt to keep the old cans, as they have the option to do.

So how’d the city botch the numbers so badly? Linda Grant, the spokeswoman for DPW, says there’s no precedent for this sort of pick-up and that the agency will use the data it gathers this time around for future distribution plans. Because the city started charging residents for new cans in 2011—during a citywide redistribution, they’re free—DPW had assumed more people would want to hold on to their old ones, just in case.

“But how many trash cans do people need?” Doris Young, a longtime Columbia Heights resident, asked this weekend as she pointed to a can that had a hole on its top, the work of a rat that had chewed through it. The can had been sitting outside her house since March.

For Young, the more than a dozen unwanted bins in her alley behind the 1300 block of Otis Place NW literally stink. While she and her neighbors waited for DPW, the bins were blown and strewn throughout the alleyway by recent rainstorms. Sometimes passersby would place the tossed bins right-side up; other passersby would then deposit trash in the cans, which were supposed to be empty for pick-up. One of the bins, according to Young, now houses a dead, smelly rat.

On Sunday, Young gathered all the trash bins in the alley lined them along the side of her house, flipping empty ones upside down. Young hopes they’re removed this week during the pick-up blitz. “We figured if we organized them very neatly, they would get the hint,” Young says.

Ribeiro says the mayor secured roughly $130,000 in funding last week to pay for extra and overtime workers this month, an effort officials believe will ensure all the bins are removed. (The city receives about $1.50 for each plastic can it recycles.)

Even though the blitz, which ends Saturday (although pickup efforts will continue through the month), was announced a few days after the Post article was published, DPW officials say the campaign was in the works long before then, and that the agency didn’t really need the newspaper to tell them it screwed up.

Grade.DC.Gov—a website that aggregates resident feedback of government agencies and gives each agency a letter grade every month—shows the agency’s approval rating dropping. In April, DPW received a C, down from a B- in March and a B+ in February. “We are hopeful we can meet the demands of our customers,” says Grant. “We do believe this [blitz] is going to get us back where we should be.”

Petworth resident Wayan Vota says he was one of the lucky ones who got his old cans removed days after he received his new ones. He and his neighbors opted to keep a few extra old bins so they could use them when they picked up trash from their street or a nearby park. But on Saturday morning, the day the removal blitz launched, Vota says the cans that he wanted to keep were missing from his alley. (During the blitz, DPW is collecting all old trashcans it finds in public alleys.)

“Can they screw up this process any more?” Vota asks.

There’s still time to find out.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery