Recycling collection suspended in eastern Gwinnett as trash piles up

AJC file photo (Courtesy of Republic Services)

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AJC file photo (Courtesy of Republic Services)

A perfect storm of factors — including COVID-19 quarantines, a labor shortage, spiking inflation, two holidays and a literal storm — has caused one of Gwinnett County’s solid waste contractors to fall behind collecting trash and suspend recycling.

County commissioners at a recent meeting said residents have inundated them with calls and emails about the problem, which worsened after high winds earlier this week felled tree branches and blew around trash that had been awaiting collection.

Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said residents told her “their neighborhoods look like war zones in Third World countries and they won’t bring the cans in because they think someone’s coming.”

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The hauler, Republic Services, serves almost 67,000 customers in unincorporated eastern Gwinnett. Collection delays began in the first week of November. But in the past week, Republic has missed trash pickups at about 8,000 households, said county spokesman Joe Sorenson.

As of Tuesday, the company had fallen so far behind schedule in unincorporated Gwinnett that it ceased collecting anything but household trash on designated days without making up previous missed collections, County Administrator Glenn Stephens told commissioners.

“They’re putting all their efforts into collecting trash the day it’s supposed to be collected,” Stephens said. “They’re not going backwards. There’s no other way for them to get out of a cycle.”

Republic announced Tuesday that it was suspending recycling, bulky item and yard waste collections until the company’s workforce normalizes.

“We apologize for the inconvenience this temporary service interruption is causing residents,” the company said in a statement. “Like many industries all over the country, we are trying to manage a severe manpower shortage. The COVID omicron variant continues to hit our operations hard; we currently have approximately 20 percent of our Gwinnett workforce on quarantine.”

Republic customers in Gwinnett can drop off recyclables at 75 Curtis Road in Lawrenceville from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to the county. Household trash and bulky items can be dropped off at 51 Patrick Mill Road SW in Winder, the Richland Creek Landfill at 5691 S. Richland Creek Road in Buford or the Oak Grove Landfill at 937 Carl Bethlehem Road in Winder. The household trash and bulky item dropoffs are open weekdays from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 6 a.m. to noon.

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Republic will pay damages for service interruptions per its contract with the county, Stephens said. He recommended commissioners consider crediting Republic customers who pay solid waste fees to the county in their tax bills.

The county needs to prepare for the possibility that its other four trash haulers could face similar problems and delays, Stephens said.

Homeowners paid the county $18.40 per month for solid waste collection last year, though seniors get a 25% discount. The county paid $18.09 per month to the haulers and kept the rest for administrative costs, Sorenson said.

Based on the number of buildings served, the county paid Republic nearly $14 million last year, he said.

All five residential haulers in the fall asked for rate increases ranging from 20 to 30 percent, Sorenson said. Their reasons included the increased wages and benefits required by the tightening labor market, greater amounts of waste to collect as people continue to work remotely and increased costs for materials and fuel due to global supply chain disruptions, Sorenson said.

Commissioners this week vented frustration with the requests, given performance issues and the timing in the middle of a contract that runs through 2026. Hendrickson joked the commission was “talking trash.”

The county could re-bid its solid waste contract, but labor and fuel costs are rising.

“It’s probably not the most favorable time to put things out for bid because we don’t know if the inflationary costs we’re seeing right now are going to be permanent,” Stephens said.

“I also see that flights are getting canceled, that hospitals are short-staffed,” he said. “I understand everybody’s frustrated, but we kind of are in this together, all of us.”