Bulldozers move garbage at the Metro Waste Authority landfill as the agency experiences declines in commercial trash collection as more people work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Contributed by Metro Waste Authority

They say you don’t think much about the trash you produce on a daily basis until it doesn’t get picked up, but officials at the Metro Waste authority say they are putting a lot of thought into your garbage as the amount of it they collect has declined in recent months.

Officials at the Metro Waste Authority say they have seen a significant decrease in commercial trash collection with the COVID-19 pandemic as fewer people work from the office, and work from home instead. With the decline in commercial garbage flow, the garbage collectors at Metro Waste have not seen a corresponding increase in residential collection, said Michael McCoy, executive director of Metro Waste Authority.

“We didn’t see the equivalent jump on the residential side,” McCoy said. “You would have thought it would have picked up on the residential because you’re at home more. It was strange to me to watch the trend on that.”

Because Metro Waste charges by the ton, that loss is translating into a loss in revenue, although it’s too early to tell what the real dollar effect will be. The landfill operated by the agency is seeing a decrease of about 1,300 tons of trash so far this year, McCoy said.

And the commercial rate is a bit higher than the residential rate, which only adds to the loss, he said.

Metro Waste was ahead on its budget before the pandemic hit, so there was a little cushion that could absorb some of the losses seen in recent months, McCoy said.

But the loss of commercial garbage being processed is just one of the effects that Metro Waste is having to cope with.

The agency had been taking fly ash from the city of Ames, which was combined with liquids collected and used as an alternative cover at the landfill. But when Ames shut down two boiler units at its power plant earlier this year, it stopped producing the fly ash. As a result, the landfill could no longer accept liquids, causing an interruption in those revenue streams. 

“With no ash, we had to cut off the liquids program, so we actually had to say no to revenue because we didn’t have anything to mix it with,” McCoy said.

The landfill has also seen a big jump in traffic from residents to the landfill, which McCoy believes is the result of people being home more and doing more home improvement projects or cleaning out basements and garages, and then bringing those materials to the landfill.

What had been 400 to 500 vehicles coming to the landfill each day jumped to over 1,000 with the increase being in cars and personal trucks. 

“Now you have hundreds, if not thousands, of first-timers coming,” he said. “And the tonnage really never went up, but we had over double the amount of vehicles.”

Because the landfill charges by the ton with a minimum fee, the increase in traffic did not result in increased revenue, McCoy said.

“We saw a decrease in the revenue stream, a decrease in total tonnage of all our programs, but an exorbitant increase in cars and vehicles coming through,” he said.

The increase in passenger vehicles also meant improvements were needed to the roads that go through the landfill to make it easier for those passenger vehicles to navigate.

Because of COVID-19, large haulers stopped doing large-item pickups at people’s homes, and stopped doing spring cleanups, he said.

To help handle the increase in residential drop-off, Metro Waste opened a facility in Grimes normally used by garbage trucks to residential customers. What was expected to be about 50 customers the first Saturday it was open ended up being 130, jumping to 150 customers the second Saturday.

“We’ll continue to do this through June, and then we’ll reevaluate,” McCoy said.

Metro Waste also had to shut down its household hazardous waste collection facility to reduce face-to-face interaction because of the coronavirus, and instead launched a pilot program metro-wide. Now, customers can order bins for those materials and Metro Waste collects them.

So far, 450 people are using the program, McCoy said.

“Which is crazy numbers,” he said. 

The agency also has curbside and drop-off recycling programs.

An increase in cardboard has resulted in Metro Waste putting out more trash bins in each of the 23 cities it serves, and emptying those almost every day, instead of every third day, which had been the plan.

As the pandemic began to unfold earlier this year, McCoy said he froze purchases of large equipment, such as bulldozers, that could cost $1 million. That, he said, should help get Metro Waste through the end of the fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

With the shift in services, Metro Waste did have to lay off two employees, but others were able to be shifted to other jobs. The agency delayed hiring summer staff, and a marketing intern position was eliminated early as office staff began working from home, McCoy said.

Only 10 of the agency’s 75 employees were working from home, he said.

McCoy said the biggest question he may have following the past few months is: What happened to all the trash?

“Is that a good thing? Is that really a negative? Does that mean people are wasting less? Is that a positive?” he said. “It’s kind of like the environment. You look at satellite pictures and what’s happened to the smog [in larger cities]. There’s a positive in it. I guess it makes a little bit of sense. I probably print less at home less than I print at work, and meals at home are probably different than meals at work.”