Solid Work from Solid Waste

by Jon Clary, Solid Waste and Recycling Division Director, Department of Public Utilities

As we continue to navigate the global pandemic, I am sure most of us have read those “feel good” stories that give us faith or hope.  Some of us may even be lucky enough to be a part of those stories.

I would like to share a story, about a group of people that embody everything good in the world.  Some of you may even see this as an example of the “Henrico Way”.  I cannot tell you that this group is perfect nor that they always get along, but I can tell you that the men and women of the Solid Waste Division are a family. They are a team that finds a way to work together and gets the job done.

DPU Staff at the Charles County Road Public Use Area

When the local effects of the pandemic began in March, most restaurants, parks, and businesses closed.  Residents were encouraged to stay at home to help stop the spread of COVID-19.  As you can imagine, waste services were deemed essential. We knew curbside trash, recycling, and the public use areas could not be put on hold or closed.  The question became, how do we provide the same basic level of service while keeping our workers and residents safe?  How do we run refuse collection crews (sometimes three workers in a truck) and not expose anyone to COVID-19?  How do we open the public use areas that sometimes have over 1,000 visitors a day and not expose the public or our workers to COVID-19?

Many of the answers to these questions made the daily jobs of the Solid Waste staff even harder.  We asked our staff to wear masks on hot, sweltering, 100-degree days; making the job more strenuous. We asked our staff to clean their trucks and equipment multiple times a day; often adding an hour or so of work to their already extended day. We asked our staff to limit the number of residents allowed to enter the public use areas to 10 vehicles at a time and to keep those vehicles at least 6-feet apart. This created a 3-hour wait and some unhappy residents on multiple occasions.  We asked our call center staff to work and take calls from home which added additional stress and hurdles to work through. Our staff found a way.

From March through July, we saw a 15% increase in the waste volumes we collected.  That is an additional 3,600 tons of waste collected through curbside refuse collection program and another 1,100 tons collected through our public use area program.  All while the COVID-19 limitations were in place. Our staff found a way.

In April, 20% of our staff was quarantined at one time.  In May, our refuse collection routes went from eight hours per day, five days a week to nine hours per day, six days a week.  Currently, 60% of our refuse trucks are broken down at one time.  Our staff continues to find a way.

At the end of the day, I cannot express the admiration and respect I have for the 60 or so Solid Waste Division employees who I consider my family.  They have overcome every obstacle that has been thrown at them and done so with a smile on their face. (I think it is a smile, although it is hard to tell with a mask on!)  Please, if you see one of our refuse trucks on the road or visit one of our public use areas, give the staff a big smile and a thumbs up!  They have worked hard, continue to do so, and have truly shown the “Henrico Way”!


DPU Staff at the Springfield Public Use Area