Environment

Kentucky re-wrote the rules for trash collection in an emergency bulletin posted in late March after hearing from a national coalition of private waste haulers.

The rule changes waive tonnage limits, hours of operation, as well as storage and regulatory compliance times. It allows garbage truck workers to co-mingle recycling and yard waste.  And it allows waste haulers to dump recycling in the landfill when not superseded by city or county rules, said John Mura, Energy & Environment Cabinet spokesman.

The state agreed to grant waste haulers temporary flexibility to protect workers and adapt to the shifting tides of trash during the pandemic, Mura said. Any company wanting to make changes must first receive a waiver from the cabinet, he said.

“The secretary issued the bulletin to ensure that the necessary and important work of collecting waste could continue during the coronavirus pandemic,” Mura said. “This would allow workers to be protected as much as possible while dealing with an increased waste stream.”

Changes came about in Louisville and at the state level after officials heard from the National Waste & Recycling Association. In late March, the association reached out to cities and states across the country asking for relief, said Robert Lee, Kentucky chapter chairman.

Lee says waste haulers across the Commonwealth are collecting more and more waste from people’s houses.  At the same time, employers are facing the prospect of staffing shortages because of the virus.

Lee, who is also CEO of ecotech waste logistics in Jeffersonville, Ind., said none of his staff have tested positive for COVID-19, but eight of them are under quarantine. With a limited number of employees, Lee said waste haulers need flexibility to collect as much trash as possible while the trucks are on their routes.

“This is truly on a temporary basis until the pandemic situation is behind us, that we would be able to mix yard waste with trash and if necessary, and only as a last resort, would also be able mix recycling with trash in order to go to the landfill,” Lee said.

Three of the four waste haulers that WFPL News spoke with said they are not currently dumping recycling in landfills. Lexington did not return answers in response to a series of questions.

Louisville Metro, which handles trash collection in Louisville’s Urban Services District, has seen a 17 percent increase in garbage volume over the same time last year, according to spokesman Salvador Melendez.  He said the city has not mixed waste streams and has not received enough extra recycling to divert it to the landfill.

The city’s waste management services have staggered shift time and provided additional protective gear — including masks and gloves — to employees, Melendez said.

Rumpke, another Louisville waste hauler for about 40 of the county’s smaller cities, said it’s seen a 20 percent increase in residential trash volume, but otherwise service continues unaffected, said Hillary Ladig, spokeswoman.

“Really from our standpoint, we understand removing waste is essential to protecting the health and wellness of our society,” Ladig said.

Lexington’s recycling center remains closed for an undetermined amount of time. Mayor Linda Gorton said her office had heard the closure was due to COVID-19, but later learned it was because of a broken part that helps sort recyclables, according to a press release.

“Machinex is not closed,” said Nancy Albright, Lexington’s Commissioner of Environmental Quality and Public Works in a press release. “Instead they are working with us to help us fix our equipment and get the center up and operating as soon as possible.”

Spokeswoman Susan Straub said Lexington hasn’t asked the state for any waivers. The city  did temporarily halt curbside yard waste pickup in April to protect employees, according to press release.

In some instances, the emergency rules could create a benefit for waste haulers who also operate landfills. Lee, who owns ecotech, also operates the landfill where his company dumps waste.

Typically, landfills charge per ton for the waste they end up collecting. More waste going to the landfill could mean more money for the operators, said Sarah Lynn Cunningham, an environmental engineer who serves on Louisville’s solid waste advisory committee.

That’s why it’s so important for the state’s environment cabinet to verify the legitimacy of changes that waste haulers are seeking, she said.

“Throughout the nation, businesses regulated by environmental agencies are asking for leniency because of the pandemic,” Cunningham said. “And sometimes, I think it’s quite legitimate and other times I think it’s opportunistic.”

Lee said he doesn’t see the pandemic as a business opportunity and that his operations continue to recycle everything they can.

“What we want to do is just make sure that we are able to pick up the trash and protect our employees,” Lee said.

Correction: This post has been updated to show that Louisville Metro is responsible for trash collection in Louisville’s Urban Services District, not most of Jefferson County.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.