Sharon Gowens has a tan, metal dumpster sitting on the street directly in front of her home in northeast Amarillo.
“It’s an embarrassment,” she said.
The 70-year-old retiree, who lives in one of the areas of the city without alleys to put dumpsters in, said she has spent $1,900 on bug spray and deodorizer over the last 17 years to combat the trash receptacle’s gross effects.
“You can’t even sit on your front porch to enjoy it or nothing else,” she said. “You got to look at a trashy dumpster with trash piled up setting right at your front door.”
But a recently announced revamping of city waste collection services is poised to remove the dumpsters, which Gowens said should’ve never been there in the first place.
The plan includes removing 1,500 dumpsters around the city — ones that are in front of homes or in hard-to-access alleys — and implementing a cart-based waste collection service. Customers would get a 95-gallon plastic cart to place their waste in and roll to the curb to be picked up twice a week by new trucks that use robotic grabbers.
The plan is drawing ire from residents concerned about the possible spread of the cart service to all of Amarillo.
A recommendation for sweeping changes to Amarillo’s trash collection has been developed by new leadership in the city’s Department of Public Works. Raymond Lee, the department’s director since February, was previously employed in public works in Dallas.
“If you look at any city that you would consider premier in solid waste collection, that does it very well, they are using a cart service to do it,” Lee said.
The City of Dallas provides all residences with plastic roll carts for collection once a week. Lee’s ultimate plan is to began a switch to a similar collection strategy, replacing most of the roughly 22,000 dumpsters in Amarillo.
But, for now, Lee and city staff are proposing moving forward with two initial phases expected to take about three to five years and $2 million to implement.
The city expects the changes to impact 16,500 of Amarillo’s 70,000 residential and commercial customers. Still, most people with alleyway dumpsters would not be affected, staff has emphasized.
The first phases involve getting rid of 1,500 dumpsters on sidewalks or streets — like those in Gowen’s neighborhood — and also in alleys that are narrow, difficult to access or have dead ends, which city drivers have to reverse huge trucks out of.
The initial phases also include replacing the city’s hand-collection service.
In neighborhoods like The Vineyards of Amarillo, where there are no alleyways, residents place bagged trash by the curb for hand-pickup twice a week.
A few older neighborhoods in Amarillo also use the service.
In Amarillo, about 6 percent of all residential customers — or 3,600 customers — use the hand-pickup service, but that number is expected to grow as future developments forgo alleyways.
‘Don’t change my heaven’
A meeting held by the city last week to gather input about the first phases drew roughly 150 attendees, spilling out into the hallway of the Amarillo Public Library on Southwest 45th Avenue.
Many at the meeting were critical of the carts, worrying they may blow away in harsh Amarillo winds.
Some worried about how easy they would be to use.
Pat Montoya said he moved to Amarillo from Kennewick, Wash., with his wife in 2012.
The 76-year-old retired U.S. postmaster who now lives in the Windsor neighborhood told city staff at the meeting he was happy to get away from a similar service in his previous city.
“When we moved here, my brother called me. He said, ‘How do you like Texas?’ I said, ‘It’s like heaven after Washington state,’” Montoya said.
“Don’t change my heaven.”
Montoya worried about fees and the carts being heavy and difficult to move.
He said storing the cart in his garage, which faces the alleyway, would mean the tough task of wheeling it around his home to the front curb for pick up.
Lee, however, has said an eventual citywide program could include picking up the carts in alleyways where possible.
Ultimately, a citywide change to a cart service will require council approval, according to city staff.
Councilman Eddy Sauer said he was in favor of the first phases of the program, which he said addressed “the most broken parts” of the city’s waste collection. But he said he was currently opposed to a citywide elimination of residential dumpsters.
“I don’t believe that they’re going to go away,” he said.
“I’ve got a dumpster in my alley. I don’t want my dumpster to go away.”
Councilwoman Freda Powell said she supported the first phases because “I am not a citizen that wants a dumpster sitting in my front yard.”
Powell reserved judgment for the sweeping change, saying she wanted to see how the initial conversion worked.
‘We have to be bold’
In September, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality sent the City of Amarillo of a notice of violation for failure to prevent the creation of a “nuisance situation” in Gowen’s neighborhood.
An inspector found furniture, a used tire, construction debris and overgrown vegetation next to the dumpsters.
The inspector also found spillage caused by the trash pick-up process.
Both violations were later corrected by city staff, according to TCEQ.
“It gave me even more justification for why I’m pushing for what I’m pushing for,” Lee said of the notice of violation.
Moving to a cart service would mean cleaner streets and alleys, he said.
Enforcing rules against the piling of trash near shared residential dumpsters has been difficult all around the city, and replacing dumpsters with carts would be an effective way to make everyone individually accountable for their own waste, Lee said.
The city also cannot replace dumpsters fast enough, which is also part of the staff’s reasoning for eventually getting rid of all dumpsters.
Many become unusable because of rusted-out bottoms.
The city has 22,000 metal dumpsters in service and, with a 10-year life cycle for the dumpsters, aims to repair or replace about 10 percent, or 2,200, each year.
This year’s budget only funds 400 dumpster replacements, which is not quite 2 percent.
The carts, which have the same 10-year lifespan as the metal dumpsters, are expected to cost about half as much to serve the same number of customers, Lee said.
The replacement of the hand-collection service is also expected to create long-term savings.
Trucks that pick up the carts will do the work twice as fast as the current three-person hand-collection crews — and with two fewer people, according to the city.
It’s not clear when the program would begin or how the city would finance the $2 million for the first phases.
The city is planning to hold additional public meetings to gather input about the changes, but it has not yet announced those locations or dates.
The switch to a cart service would be the latest significant shift in the city’s trash collection strategy.
In June, the city launched a new trash initiative to combat the illegal dumping of bulky items like furniture and mattresses in alleyways and near dumpsters.
Crews performed a monthslong, citywide sweep of alleys and then launched a bulk-trash program to curb future dumping.
The program encourages residents to move large items like furniture to the curb and call the city to arrange a pickup.
“A new direction was needed,” said Cole Camp, a professional environmental specialist and member of the city’s Environmental Task Force, which advises the city council on matters like waste disposal.
“Some things will work for our community and some may not. We have to be bold in order to stretch our dollars and bring our waste collection efforts into the 21st century.”