Collingswood creates its own trash removal services within 48 hours. Haddon Heights is considering the same. Pennsauken borrows trucks from its schools to haul waste. Can such impromptu solutions become permanent?
By Matt Skoufalos | June 11, 2021
In Collingswood, Memorial Day weekend 2021 started not with preparations for the traditional kickoff to the summer season, but rather an e-mail from garbage collection company Seaside Waste Services, notifying officials that its trash trucks wouldn’t be making the rounds.
Facing three days of projected thunderstorms amid mounting garbage, recycling, and yard waste, officials scrambled to put together an in-house collection service just to get through the weekend.
Collection delays from Seaside Waste had been mounting for weeks, with the borough government trying to get the vendor to uphold the terms of its contract while simultaneously fining the company for its failure to show up.
(To put things in perspective: of its $47,000 monthly waste bill, Collingswood withheld $38,000 in May due to non-performance.)
By Friday, the borough government had all but shored up the resources to create its own trash service within the Department of Public Works (DPW).
Its DPW requisitioned two trucks from Seaside Waste, rented one from Gloucester City, and ordered another from Georgia. Borough crews worked overtime throughout the holiday weekend to clear up the backlog. Residents were invited to drop off their own waste to a local public works site in the interim.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley described the circumstances as “a summertime blizzard” in terms of both the volume and unexpected nature of the work. On Tuesday, he stopped by the department to thank the crew for their efforts; by the end of the week, the borough had collected more than a dozen resumes from people who applied to join the crew as supplemental staffers.
All those efforts point to Collingswood exploring the feasibility of establishing its own in-house waste management service, Maley said. The borough contract with Seaside Waste will expire at the end of June, but officials are looking to extend it month-to-month throughout the end of the year, with the possibility of bidding out the work in January 2022.
“We’re exploring all of it right now,” the mayor said. “This is a great trial for us to figure out if we can do it in-house.
“We’re in a situation here where nobody’s picking up trash, and we have to figure out what to do,” he said, “and we can’t contact another company; they’re all dealing with the same problem.”
Collingswood Police Chief and Public Works Director Kevin Carey said he’s hopeful that the borough will bring its waste management services back under the control of the local government.
“To get an email from a vendor on a Thursday morning saying, ‘We’re not coming in,’ is just not acceptable,” Carey said. “I’m hopeful that the numbers work for us to have it in-house. If you work for the town, you’re in service to the town. That means something; it’s going to improve the level of service.”
There are hurdles to establishing such a service, however. New trash trucks can cost upwards of $200,000 apiece, and Carey estimates Collingswood will need four to run its own service full-time. On top of that, it’s nine months from the time orders for them are placed to the date of delivery.
And although the borough DPW is picking up the slack to bail the town out of its current predicament, putting staff on garbage duty means taking them away from other projects that require their attention.
“DPW does a lot of work that goes unnoticed because it’s always been done: water, sewer, cutting grass,” Carey said. “There’s those little things that we put a lot of pride into that are going to suffer.”
Moreover, Carey said he’s already presently short-staffed, as two of his 14 DPW workers are out of work with illnesses or injury. He’s hopeful that a new crop of six workers from the new applicants will be available to start Monday afternoon.
“It’s been all hands on deck, and they’ve been working long hours,” Carey said. “All of our workers are picking up the slack.”
‘Just saying we’re going to do it ourselves doesn’t mean anything if we can’t get people to do the job’
In Haddon Heights, Mayor Zach Houck said he started the week “dreading waking up” to the kind of message Collingswood had received last Thursday—and on Friday morning, that’s exactly what he got from Haddon Heights Public Works Superintendent Dave Taraschi.
Haddon Heights shares a public works department with Audubon, but that agreement doesn’t cover waste removal.
With no other options, Houck asked Taraschi, “Can your guys handle it?” They responded by collecting all the recycling in the borough in a single day. (“Trash is a two-day process, and the current public works doesn’t have the capacity of trucks and workers to do that pick-up in Heights,” Houck said.)
Haddon Heights remains under contract with Seaside Waste Services, although borough officials have notified the company that it’s in default of that agreement, and that they’ll seek to recoup an assurance bond meant to guarantee their quality of service, Houck said.
For now, Haddon Heights will turn to Camden County public works employees to cover any labor shortfalls, using trucks borrowed from Seaside, and passing on elevated costs for the emergency labor to the company. The borough has also offered residents to dump waste at its municipal building; on Tuesday afternoon, a dumpster set aside for that purpose remained empty.
In the meantime, borough employees are hard at work formulating the framework of a logistics plan to establish a local trash and recycling removal service, which Houck estimated will require purchasing two trucks and hiring nine employees.
“Assuming the numbers all work out, we’ll terminate our contracts with Seaside and do our own thing,” the mayor said. “But just saying we’re going to do it ourselves doesn’t mean anything if we can’t get people to do the job. We won’t terminate a contract with our vendor without a plan.”
Houck believes that even with all the capital outlay required to create an in-house trash service from scratch, the borough could still have the flexibility to shop for a private hauler and fold the new vehicles into its shared services agreement with Audubon.
The persistence of unreliable waste management issues and the high costs associated with the service could have other communities looking to join in a similar agreement as well, he said.
“I don’t think investing in that capital outlay is a huge gamble for us, because either way those trucks would be needed,” Houck said.
“If we can do this, do we expand our SSA with Audubon to towns like Barrington or Bellmawr?”
The mayor also knows that his constituents won’t be as interested in the mechanics of any such hypotheticals as much as they want their waste to be taken away reliably and without incident.
“Trash gets people emotionally charged,” Houck said. “No one wants, in the heat of summer, to be smelling last week’s garbage.”
‘When we have to pick up trash, everything else is going on hold’
In Pennsauken, Mayor Marco DiBattista said his public works teams have been working around the clock to collect the leftover trash and recycling that Seaside Waste hasn’t been able to address. His township, too, “had zero trucks and zero drivers” before the Memorial Day weekend, and borrowed trucks from the company as well as from its own Board of Education to get the job done.
“I have to give our DPW all the credit,” DiBattista said. “Our employees have shown our residents that their dedication to this town is unparalleled. We stand behind them, and we give them all the praise.”
For smaller boroughs like Collingswood and Haddon Heights, it’s a major undertaking to create an in-house trash collection service; for Pennsauken, a community of 35,000, it’s simply impossible to do the same.
“When we have to pick up trash, everything else is going on hold,” DiBattista said. “We don’t have enough manpower to handle trash, debris, and recycling in a town of 35,000 people.”
At the same time, the township “can’t allow our residents to be hung out to dry if these guys don’t show up again,” he said.
In response, Pennsauken has purchased a full-sized trash truck that’s on its way from Iowa, and is using dump trucks and smaller trucks to pick up the slack. The township probably needs another two or three trash trucks, DiBattista said, and while the situation remains fluid, “we’re holding our breath every day.
“The first thing I do every day when I wake up at 6 a.m. is check the email about the trash,” the mayor said.
“We’re advising the community moment to moment.”
For now, Pennsauken residents are advised to continue following their normal trash collection schedule, while also checking the township social media platforms for any changes.
The local government has also made reverse 9-1-1 calls to keep residents in the loop.
“We don’t want there to be this lapse,” DiBattista said. “We are prepared when they call us to find out what’s going on. We don’t take this lightly.”
Pennsauken’s contract with Seaside Waste Services expires at the end of the year, and although DiBattista doesn’t yet know what the town will do if the service isn’t normalized, he’s open to adding new public works staffers to handle things.
“It’s easier for us to hire people than it is the trash guys,” he said. “These [DPW] jobs are better to have than working for Seaside.”
‘It’s best for us to make that contract work’
In Haddon Township, which is under contract with Seaside Waste for another two years, Mayor Randy Teague said there’s no interest in exploring an alternative to the current agreement.
Despite being a day behind on trash and recycling collection, and picking up the yard waste with local resources, “cost-wise, it’s best for Haddon Township to make that contract work,” Teague said.
Teague said the cost of creating a dedicated waste service within the Haddon Township DPW would cost more than $1 million in manpower, $1.25 million in truck purchases, and still present an issue of where to garage the fleet. Moreover, the mayor believes that taking its contract out to bid would increase costs beyond the $630,000 annually that Haddon Township pays presently.
“We’ve been assured by Seaside that they would be back on track within a week or two,” Teague said. “We’re going to do everything we can to maintain that financial benefit, at the same time expecting them to fulfill the obligations within that contract. If there’s an immediate emergency situation to respond to, we can borrow a truck from Somerdale.”
Back on schedule after ‘a debacle’
After the chaos of the Memorial Day weekend, Seaside Waste Services CEO Jim Sage said his company has been on schedule with its collection efforts.
By adding new hires, shifting some employees from its commercial accounts to deal with the residential needs, and working some 15- and 16-hour days, Sage said Seaside has closed the shortfall with its customers.
“The Memorial Day weekend was a debacle,” he said. “The landfills are closed on that Monday, so there was no collection. But that following Saturday, we’ve been on schedule since that, and we’re on schedule today.”
The notion that some of the communities with which Seaside is contracted might explore building their own waste management services seemed not to trouble Sage.
“We’re on schedule, and intend to stay on schedule,” he said.
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