Shortage of Houston solid waste workers causing recycling pickup delays
An overflowing recycling bin in northwest Houston. Photo by Paul DeBenedetto/HPM.

A staffing shortage in Houston’s solid waste management department is causing delayed and missed recycling pickups across the city, the agency confirmed.

The Solid Waste Management Department is trying to fill 45 vacancies for waste collectors, said department director Mark Wilfalk.

Wilfalk, who assumed the position two months ago, said he’s reevaluating staffing needs based on the city’s population growth and demand for services like recycling.

“I don’t know what that magic number is just yet,” he said.

In the meantime, the solid waste department has been skipping some recycling pickups to make up the difference from staffing shortages.

Recycling is skipped first. Then, yard waste is skipped if necessary. Garbage collection is prioritized for health and safety reasons, Wilfalk said.

The agency head also said Houstonians need to be aware of the rules for bulk waste collection and lessen the amount they produce. People are supposed to limit bulk waste to eight cubic yards, which Wilfalk said could fill up the bed of two full-sized pick-up trucks.

Instead, some homes are leaving out as much as 100 cubic yards of bulk waste, which slows down collection.

Providing on-time collection service is Wilfalk’s first priority in his new term as Houston’s director of solid waste management, he said.

“If we say we’re going to pick up your garbage and recycling and yard waste and bulk waste on Monday, then by five o’clock Monday, it is complete,” he said. “That’s the number one goal.”

Monica Trevino, who lives in Westbury, spoke at the Jan. 5 Houston city council meeting about issues in her own neighborhood. She said she was skipped for recycling pickup on Dec. 30, and her neighborhood was also passed over for tree waste pickup in November.

The city released an advisory ahead of the missed pickups, but Trevino said the message wasn’t heard.

“I drive through my neighborhood and see that 90% of the residents, of my neighbors, are still putting their bins out,” she said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner confirmed at the council meeting that municipal waste collection has had a staffing shortage for the past year.

In addition to the 45 driver vacancies that haven’t been filled, he said current municipal waste collectors are being recruited by private companies that offer higher pay for fewer hours of work. Houston waste collectors sometimes work six or seven days a week.

COVID-19 has also led to fewer drivers available to pick up waste. Turner said 370 or more solid waste management employees were out due to the virus on Monday.

“That number is increasing every day,” the mayor said.

The city is paying additional vendors to supplement solid waste operations. Turner said they’re offering overtime pay and retention bonuses in an effort to keep current employees. Waste collection was also put on a holiday schedule the last two weeks of December to give collectors some time off.

Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who represents District C, confirmed many of her constituents weren’t aware of the holiday recycling schedule change.

“Our office over the holidays was inundated in District C by the skipped — scheduled skipped, but skipped— recycling pickup, which left residents without pickup for a month,” Kamin said.

The department posts updates on its Twitter page, which has 2,487 followers. It also has an app, HTX Collects, which provides alerts.

Still, Turner said the city will work on finding ways to communicate with those who aren’t on social media or aware of the app.