Jacksonville’s trash collection problem gets worse during pandemic

Homeowners weren’t sure the problem could get any worse. They were wrong.

Homeowners weren’t sure the problem could get any worse. They were wrong.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For months, the mayor of Jacksonville’s inbox has been filled with complaints about trash. Yes, trash.

Homeowners and city leaders share knowing glances when names of certain waste companies come up. That’s because it’s become something of an accepted fact of life just how often whole neighborhoods in Duval County are left untouched on trash day.

Arlington homeowner Mike Salenza started taking his own trash to the city landfill. It’s more than 45 minutes from his home.

“I can’t depend on them to pick up the trash,” Salenza said. “So, what do I need them for?”

Trash piled up, waiting for collection (WJXT)

Evelyn Story, who lives on the Northside, says the dispatchers who answer the phone for the city’s complaint line – recognize her phone number.

“I would call, and the city would say the same ole thing. I will put in a report and the report leads to nothing,” said Story. “So, my trash is sitting out there collecting maggots from the smell and heat and all that.”

Traci Riniker called the city 18 times about her yard waste since last August. A trash truck finally grabbed her yard waste after seven weeks – but she said it cost her extra.

“We gave them $10 each and they picked it up and they were on their way,” said Riniker. “The next time it got to be like $17 each.”

The complicated relationship between the city, homeowners and private trash companies has been going on for quite some time.

City records show since August 2019, 79,082 people complained their trash wasn’t collected. More than 33,000 of those were reports shared an entire street was missed.

Councilmember Joyce Morgan has dealt with the brunt of complaints about trash in Jacksonville since she took office in 2015. Her district, in the Arlington area of Duval County, saw roughly 9,000 of the complaints. On the Northside, the 32218 ZIP code alone has more than 10,000 reports.

“This is not about you missing one person. This is about you missing an entire neighborhood," Morgan said. “That’s an issue.”

The city hired multiple private companies to cover areas of Duval County. Republic Services, also known as Southland Waste Systems, covers Arlington.

The area that Republic Services is responsible for has generated close to half of the city’s complaints about missed trash, with more than 36,000 complaints since last August.

Last year, Republic had so many issues with not picking up trash in neighborhoods, spilling corrosive chemicals onto the road from trucks and breaking trash bins — the chief of the city’s solid waste division sent a letter in October 2019 telling the company to fix the problems or the city would cut Republic’s contract.

In a letter, Chief Will Williams said “the city has attempted to work with [Southland Waste Systems] on numerous occasions in order to rectify these non-compliance issues, but SWS continues to default under the agreement.”

Republic promised to clean up its act, drafted a plan and the company got a second chance, records show. The deal set new conditions for the company: reduce complaints by 10% every quarter.

A year — and a pandemic — later, the city has sent another letter threatening to cut ties with Republic Services. The trash complaints about the company got worse.

The company was charged more than $163,000 in penalties and the city claimed they received over 14,000 non-compliance issues about Republic.

But, months have gone by and the city hasn’t made good on either notice to terminate Republic’s contract. The city said through email, it was “evaluating all options.”

The trash issues that Councilmember Morgan has navigated during her tenure feel heightened at a time when her district, Arlington, is experiencing an uptick in crime.

“When you live here and you’re dealing with all of these shootings, all of these things that people are saying are bad about our neighborhood,” said Morgan. “The last thing you want is trash sitting in front of your garage for days and days unchecked.”

But, why is this happening? Attorneys for Republic Services say for one, more people are throwing more things away. Figures provided by Republic show a 16% increase in the amount of trash produced by people in Jacksonville since the start of the pandemic.

The company also blames the way complaints are being recorded that can be misleading. The company argues operators taking complaints are sometimes recording multiple reports from customers who are out of compliance themselves.

Republic gave an example of one customer who placed 20 tires out to be collected. The City of Jacksonville instructs residents to leave no more than four tires out for pick-up at a time. But, the city counted violations against Republic for missed collections until all the tires were picked up, according to attorneys for Republic Services.

Republic also says sometimes customer reports get entered incorrectly, leading to supervisors showing up to the wrong houses to correct an issue. Republic says even when they show up to the wrong place because of wrong information from the city — they are deemed in violation.

Last, Republic Services blames a “once in a lifetime pandemic” on the surge in complaints and missed collection. However, Republic’s documented issues predate the pandemic. The city sent its first letter to Republic Services telling the company to do better or lose its contract in October 2019 – that as well before the first case of novel coronavirus was reported in the United States.

Throughout the pandemic, other private trash companies have piled up fewer complaints than Republic. Waste Pro had more than 22,000 complaints and Advanced Disposal had fewer than 10,000, according to city records. Republic had thousands more complaints than both companies combined within the same time frame.

Jacksonville city leaders say the biggest problem for Republic Services may be the commute the trash haulers have to the city landfill — driving to a distant landfill takes up time Republic’s trucks could be collecting trash.

In an email to the city, attorneys for Republic said “in August there was additional wait times of more than 344 hours than the previous August” and that translated into “approximately 12,000 residences unable to be collected during that month due to delays at the landfill.”

Trucks lined up at Jacksonville's landfill (WJXT)

Councilman Ron Salem says Republic has one of the longest drives from their coverage area to the landfill.

“The two things they expressed to me – one is the distance traveling and two the wait time to drop their garbage and then it delays the truck from getting across town,” said Salem.

But, there’s no quick solution to the problem on the table. City leaders have a transfer station in the works: a drop-off location for waste between routes and the landfill. But the agreement is still being prepared, needs city council approval and could take up to two years at minimum to complete.

“My tax dollars are not working for me. The city is not working for me in this regard. So, they need to terminate the contract and move on. It’s that simple,” Salenza said.

“They need to get rid of them. If you’re not holding up to your end of the contract. This is my tax dollar and I want my tax dollar well spent,” added Story.

Republic Services says following the first notice the city got in 2019 – they re-routed all their collections. This time around Republic added three trucks, hired additional drivers and added routes. The company has also proposed a temporary transfer station for yard waste, to keep trucks from having to go to the landfill as often.

Meanwhile, City Council members plan to hold a public hearing on Monday, Nov. 30 to speak to directly to Republic Services' leaders.

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.