One 1,000-word Washington Post article later and I’m still failing to wrap my head around the sanitation scandal — “Trash Can-Gate” as one mortified city council member dubs it — that’s currently rocking the District of Columbia. And I get the feeling that for many D.C. residents, the feeling is mutual.

Here’s the gist of it:

Earlier this year, the Department of Public Works, with some urgency, unrolled a $9 million residential trash and recycling receptacle replacement program in which aging and inadequate “Supercans,” regular-sized garbage cans, and recycling bins were replaced with 210,000 new and improved ones. While the new receptacles were delivered across the District in a speedy fashion by outside contractors, the DPW neglected to devise a well-coordinated plan of attack on what exactly to do with the retired ones outside of asking residents to affix yellow “Take Me!” stickers to them, signifying that they needed to be removed.

And so, for well over a month, thousands upon thousands of obsolete trash and recycling bins, many of them filled to the brim and rather pungent smelling, lined D.C.’s curbs and alleyways, their fate unclear. After weeks of backlash from both the public and local politicians over the botched pick-up job, on May 9 Mayor Vincent Gray approved $130,000 in overtime pay that allowed sanitation crews to embark on an all-out “blitz” in which any old and unwanted receptacles would finally be picked up and recycled.

Over the last couple of weeks, sanitation workers have indeed been scrambling to retrieve the hulking, garbage-filled eyesores from across the District. But as the Post reports, a whole lot of them — an estimated 5,300 old trash cans and recycling bins — were not recycled as promised, but landfilled along with regular trash. There are some reports that even some of the new receptacles were also swooped up by District garage trucks during the “overly aggressive” blitz. In total, that's roughly 53 tons of plastic waste that should have been steered clear of landfills.

The DPW has acknowledged that the old cans and bins in question — about a third of the approximately16,300 receptacles collected during the blitz — were landfilled instead of recycled but has failed to explain why it happened. (Most likely because they were filled with trash that would have been landfilled anyways). 

"The cans were rushed out right before the election … and this is the continuing by-product of a badly initiated, and badly run program," laments D.C. Councilwoman Mary Chen of Ward 3.

DPW spokesperson Linda Grant emphasized to the Post that all of the 60,000 cans collected in the weeks prior to the blitz are eventually going to be recycled along with all of the cans collected during the blitz that didn’t somehow wind up being dumped at Fort Totten Transfer Station. Grant estimates that, to date, 26,500 cans and bins — a total of 265 tons of retired trash receptacles — have indeed been recycled.

Mayor Gray’s office, meanwhile, claims that is has no idea what’s going on over at the DPW. Gray’s spokesperson Pedro Ribeio tells the Post: "The mayor was not aware that they were throwing away the cans. From all the briefings we have gotten, it was always said they would be ‘recycled.’ The mayor doesn’t decide which cans get recycled or not. That’s [DPW Director] Bill Howland, who reports to the city administrator, who reports to the mayor.”

Those who have been following — or living amidst — D.C.’s messy, ongoing trash can debacle might recall that in April, 30-year-old artist Mina Karini and her friend Timothy Logan Melham were arrested, briefly jailed, and charged with theft after they were nabbed in Georgetown trying to make off with 50 neglected, waiting-to-be-collected garbage cans sporting “Take Me!” stickers. Seeing that the city was lagging behind in collecting them and that they had become a public eyesore, Karini planned to repurpose them into planters. “We wouldn’t have done this if we thought we did wrong. We just wanted to re-purpose them for something.”

Via [Washington Post]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Trash can drama continues to sweep the nation's capital
Washington, D.C. provides a blueprint for other cities on how not to replace aging trash cans and recycling bins with new ones.