Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | A suburban subdivision’s struggle with garbage collection.
Tuesday is the big trash and recycling pickup day in the Canterbury Woods subdivision of Annandale, Virginia in suburban Fairfax County. I know because I live there, and have the weekly pleasure of seeing and hearing trucks from competing companies roar up and down the street a seemingly mathematically unnecessary number of times. The clanking robot arms the trucks’ drivers deploy are a technologically impressive labor-saving device, even if they do sometimes wreak havoc on the plastic trash cans.
All of this wouldn’t be a big deal, if the service were reliable. It is not. Frequent are the weeks in which the trash collection company sends an email saying they won’t be collecting this Tuesday, and hope to make it up later in the week. The spotty service is the result of labor shortages not just in Fairfax County, but across the country. With Amazon and other online retailers hiring truck drivers by the thousands, local trash haulers and governments that provide garbage pickup are feeling the pinch.
But even before the pandemic set off a dramatic increase in home deliveries, many Canterbury Woods residents had become dissatisfied with the private trash collection choices available to them. But they had another option: asking the county to take over.
Fairfax County is in the unusual position of supplying trash hauling services to only some of its citizens—about 10% of the county’s population. Communities can ask to become one of the “small and local sanitary districts” served by the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, but only if they get 55% of residents to sign a petition requesting such service. And even then it’s not a done deal until the county’s Board of Supervisors approves the shift.
In 2019, the Canterbury Woods Civic Association embarked on a quest for county trash service, contacting the 517 residents of the community and asking them to vote on their preferences. In June 2020, a petition to request county service reached the 55% threshold.
Then began the long waiting game for the petition to wend its way through the bureaucratic process. In July 2020, Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who represents the Canterbury Woods neighborhood, expressed his cautious support for the shift to county pickup, while telling a local news site, the Braddock Buzz, that “there is a challenge in that, right now, our public works department is not confident that they have the trucks—they're very expensive—and the staffing to take on a lot of new neighborhoods.”
More than a year later, the department changed its tune. Lainie Shifflett, an official with the county’s Solid Waste Management Program, told the Braddock Buzz in August: “Although there are still major challenges for waste collection service providers due to a national labor shortage and pandemic impacts, we are confident that we can provide quality service to the Canterbury Woods neighborhood.”
Now, it seemed, everything was set. A vote on the petition was put on the agenda for the Oct. 5 meeting of the Board of Supervisors. But at the meeting, the public works department switched its position again. The Annandale Blog reported that John Kellas, director of solid waste and recycling, told the board the county was having enough problems serving its existing customers. “We’re doing everything we can to get the trash off the ground,” he said, but simply couldn't promise that they’d be able to handle additional pickups by a deadline of Jan. 1, 2022.
Walkinshaw lamented the “mixed messages constituents were receiving,” noting that just two months earlier the public works department had expressed confidence in its ability to serve additional residents. “Now you’re saying you can’t.”
In the end, the board voted to defer a decision on the Canterbury Woods petition.
So for now, residents continue to wait. And as the trucks roar up and down the street, homeowners hope this won’t be one of the weeks they’re left with a full garbage can or recycling bin at the curb.