On-Island, complaints of late pickups and overflowing dumpsters are becoming common, and many companies in Massachusetts are days behind in their operations, while some are weeks behind.
The sanitation and waste management crisis on-Island and in Massachusetts that has been developing for years is being worsened by a nationwide labor shortage, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP).
According to Mike Camara, CEO of ABC Disposal, because he can’t find enough help on the Vineyard, ABC is hiring drivers out of New Bedford to come here and work, and is sponsoring current workers to get their CDC licenses so they can drive the garbage trucks. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my whole life, having this level of difficulty trying to find people; it’s unbelievable,” Camara said.
Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the MassDEP, wrote in an email to The Times that the issue of recycling, landfills, and general waste management is not unique to Martha’s Vineyard, or even confined to the commonwealth.
“Anecdotally, MassDEP has heard of these same issues happening throughout Massachusetts and, in fact, nationally,” Coletta wrote.
While this is affecting solid waste management and recycling, Coletta said, there are broader supply chain and workforce issues nationwide that are affecting many business sectors.
Although some of those issues are due in part to COVID, such as delays in ordering parts and equipment for recycling and waste processing facilities, others are simply due to the lack of technicians and drivers — a problem that has been developing for a number of years.
According to ABC Disposal’s Camara, recyclables are still getting recycled — contrary to rumors on-Island that recyclables are separated at intake facilities but then commingled and sent to a landfill with other nonrecyclable solids.
Recyclables from the Island are shipped to a 103,000-square-foot facility called Zero Waste Solutions in Rochester, which processes residential and commercial waste, as well as single-stream recyclables and source-separated recyclables.
Camara, who owns the plant, said the recyclables are processed and made into bales that are sold as commodities to places like South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Turkey, and India.
China used to purchase a large portion of recycled plastic commodities from America and turn it into goods like shoes, bags, and other plastic products. But in 2018, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables like mixed paper and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country were forced to tell towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling, and municipalities had to either pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.
According to Camara, there are reports that China may again start to accept recycled materials from America, but that doesn’t fix the problems that sanitation and waste management companies are seeing now.
“There is a very serious disposal crisis across the country,” Camara said. “Waste management is short 22,000 drivers and more than 800 mechanics — we need the help, but we can’t find it right now.”
Currently, Camara said, ABC is short on customer service staff, salespeople, dispatchers, drivers, mechanics, heavy equipment operators, facility laborers, and more.
As a service company, Camara said ABC prides itself on reliable and consistent service, but staying on schedule can be difficult or impossible when there aren’t enough workers. For Camara and his staff, it’s all hands on deck during the sanitation and waste management crisis. “If I didn’t come in to drive my truck on my last day of vacation, the work wouldn’t have gotten done, and that’s not acceptable,” Camara said.
In April 2020, nearly 560,000 Massachusetts residents were receiving unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and in April 2021, Massachusetts still held a 6.4 percent unemployment rate.
Camara said he believes there will be a significant rise in the sanitation and waste management workforce after federal and state aid runs dry, and many folks are no longer living off government subsidies.
Even with a diminished workforce, Camara said, ABC and other disposal companies are still getting the job done, even if pickups are a bit late, and drivers have to work odd hours.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t meet the demand of the summer season — I know sometimes the routes aren’t done during the week, and we have to go out during the weekend,” Camara said, and explained that drivers are only allowed to drive 10 hours per day.
As of now, the majority of the 600,000 tons of waste ABC manages each year is bailed into bags and shipped out to states like Ohio and Virginia because there is a lack of landfill and incineration capacity in Massachusetts.
Camara said that during a conference call with the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, he asked how ABC can fulfill one of its core goals of helping the environment when it is being forced to create massive carbon impacts by shipping trash that far away.
“They said they totally agree, but they just didn’t have a good solution right now,” Camara said.
Bruno’s Rolloff general manager Joshua Forend said finding places for the company to take the waste it picks up has been a problem for the past 10 years, as every day the company is sending loaded trucks to New York to dump.
Right now, Forend stressed that the best thing the Island community can do to combat the waste crisis is to reduce the use of all disposables and address the issue at its core.
“We knew this day was coming for a long time — it’s nothing new. The landfills are full, and unfortunately the public won’t know it until it hits their wallets,” Forend said. “We are producing major volumes of waste, and I think we can do better with it. We can’t create new landfills, and the facilities that we need to handle what we do cost billions of dollars, so we won’t have our own here on the Island.”
As far as staffing is concerned, Forend said, every truck had a hired driver at the start of the year, and now he and his operations manager are in a truck doing pickups every day. Even if the company doubled its pay rates (and in turn, doubled its prices), Forend said, he believes it would still face the same issue.
“It seems like there are just so many other opportunities out there that it makes everything pretty thin for us,” Forend explained. “I think a lot of people can make close to the same money doing something they probably prefer, instead of picking up trash. That’s our battle that we fight.”