When Jacksonville ended recycling pickup in October, the city gave tentative estimates that it could be half a year before it would be able to resume curbside service.
That might have been optimistic.
Three months later, contractors still need about three dozen more drivers to fully staff waste pickup routes, much to the consternation of City Council members and residents.
That means residents shouldn't expect recycling pickup to return anytime soon but should see a reduction in missed garbage and yard waste, if they haven't already.
Councilman Matt Carlucci called for a public meeting Thursday he titled "accountability, transparency, and the state of solid waste services in Jacksonville," inviting other council members and the city's contracted waste haulers to attend.
Under questioning from Councilmen Carlucci, Michael Boylan, Al Ferraro, and Terrance Freeman, Jacksonville Chief Administration Officer Brian Hughes said recycling could be back as soon as next week if the council mandated it.
"Then, a week later, your garbage, yard waste and trash will be back in the thousands of missed collections rather than the hundreds," Hughes said.
In an email to the City Council on Tuesday, Hughes explained that at the peak of its waste problems, the city missed over 4,000 collections (a collection being a single pickup from a property) between Sep. 6 and Sep. 13. After suspending curbside recycling, the city was able to reduce it to around 500 missed collections by December, though it spiked to over 1,000 at the start of this month, which Hughes attributed to the holidays.
Hughes, along with Solid Waste Division Chief Will Williams, were visibly frustrated by the suggestions and comments made by the four councilmen.
"I'm going to tell you, I'm not reading these emails that I'm getting from you because I get a thousand emails and I don't have the time," Ferraro told Hughes. "We can get a lot more done in a quick phone call than sending emails."
Freeman asked why the driver shortage was affecting only two of the city's three contractors on the West and Southeast Side, and not Meridian Waste in the North. He asked if it was possible to expand Meridian's contract into other areas experiencing shortages.
Williams explained that, because Meridian had a more recent contract with the city, it was able to get a rate more responsive to the current market, allowing the company to pay its drivers more than the two other haulers, which had also increased wages.
As a result, Meridian effectively cannibalized its two competitors.
"They came in, they crippled [Advanced Disposal], okay? A lot of those drivers came from [Advanced Disposal], that's why we have issues. They only got a few from Waste Pro, and Waste Pro is still managing to limp around," Williams said.
According to Hughes, after rate reviews next month, the city will be able to adjust contracts to make things more equitable between the three companies.
Meridian Waste's contract runs from October through Sept. 30, 2027, and pays $22.44 per pickup site. Waste Pro's contract, dating to 2013 and continuing to Sept. 30 2023, provides just $14.33 per site. Advanced Disposal's 2015 contract nets it even less: $10.65 per site.
Increasing the contracts to get more drivers means residents would either have to pay more in fees, or the city would take on even more debt to fund waste pickup, a tab that's currently over $20 million in the red.
As for dealing with the persisting problem of missed waste pickups, Hughes suggested the council take a second look at a proposal it has repeatedly shot down: a waste transfer station.
Residents have complained about seeing trucks drive right past their garbage without stopping to pick it up. When trucks are full, they're required to drive all the way back to the landfill to drop it off before they can resume their route.
A waystation would allow drivers to quickly drop off their haul and return to their routes within work hours, reducing the amount of missed pickups.