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COVID-19 has changed everything, even Boston’s trash. Here’s how

Juan Sandoval and John Kelley emptied trash barrels in South Boston early Tuesday morning.
Juan Sandoval and John Kelley emptied trash barrels in South Boston early Tuesday morning.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It is before dawn and below freezing. South Boston has yet to wake up. And Juan Sandoval and John Kelley are disrupting the cold tranquility with the thudding and clanking of the task at hand: picking up the trash.

There is the truck itself: its compactor thrums, its air brakes hiss. Occasionally, a crunch emerges from its innards. The two men roll and drag the garbage bins off the curb on Emerson Street in a seemingly endless task: The contents of barrel, after barrel, after barrel are emptied into the back of the yellow Capitol Waste Services vehicle.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, such work is plentiful, with Bostonians providing more refuse for these trucks to collect each week. Add garbage to the list of what the public health emergency has changed. With more people telecommuting, kids learning from home, and many opting to shop online instead of in person, the volume of household trash and recycling in the city has risen. Compared to last year, the city has seen a 6.6 percent bump in residential waste as of the end of October. That translates to 18 million more pounds of household trash and 8 million more pounds of household recycling, which includes curbside recycling, yard waste, and electronics and textile collection, according to Brian Coughlin, the city’s superintendent of waste reduction.

”That’s a substantial increase,” said Coughlin recently.

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Boston is hardly alone. According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, residential waste nationwide is about 7 percent to 10 percent above normal, down from a 20 percent spike in the spring, at the start of the pandemic. David Biderman, the association’s executive director, anticipated that if stay-at-home orders are issued to combat the current surge in virus infections, there would be a steeper uptick for such waste in places where the orders are issued.

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“There is definitely an increase in the amount of glass, plastic, and cardboard in residential recycling, as a result of the pandemic,” said Biderman in an e-mail. “People are eating and drinking at home instead of at restaurants and bars, which results in increased solid waste and recyclables being generated in residential.”

Juan Sandoval stuffed old carpet into the waste collection vehicle in South Boston on Tuesday morning.
Juan Sandoval stuffed old carpet into the waste collection vehicle in South Boston on Tuesday morning.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

That rubbish eventually ends up at the curb, which is where unsung workers pick it up and toss it into the back of a truck. Through rain, snow, or unprecedented global crisis, people like Sandoval and Kelley show up to work. Without that service, Coughlin said, “I don’t even want to imagine what that would be like.”

“It’s a thankless job that a lot of people don’t even comprehend what the work is like, the physical demand on them,” said Coughlin.

Indeed. On a typical day, more than 60 tons of trash will be taken from Southie’s streets, and both Kelley and Sandoval, at the start of their shift, are toiling.

The physicality of the task at hand is relentless. They are in constant motion, moving from the curb to the truck and back to the curb again with bins, some of which have wheels, some of which don’t. Some of them fit snugly onto a mechanism on the truck that lifts the receptacles and empties the contents into the back; some of them don’t. They toss loose refuse and bags into the back.

Sporadically, Sandoval jogs to the cab of the truck and moves the vehicle a little farther down the block, with Kelley riding on the back. The temperature is in the 20s, but Sandoval, a 49-year-old Brighton resident who has been doing this for 20 years, has worked up a sweat. Kelley, a 53-year-old who lives in Somersworth, N.H., and has done this work for 28 years, says he is less concerned with the cold than the wind that sometimes whips through the neighborhood.

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The key to staying warm, he said, is to keep moving.

Both said they enjoy the nonstop pace of the gig. Their line of work, they said, tends to breed long-timers.

“We love it,” said Sandoval after dragging barrels over to the rear of the truck.

On any given day, there are between 75 to 80 city-contracted trash and recycling trucks on Boston’s streets, according to Coughlin. The city’s collection and disposal budget for trash and recycling is north of $50 million, he said, and Boston is split up into five zones for collection. Trash from greater downtown and Roxbury are sent to an incinerator in Saugus. Trash from the other Boston zones are sent to transfer stations in Lynn or Braintree, and then to waste energy sites, he said. The city’s recycling goes to a Casella Waste Systems facility in Charlestown.

Last week, Casella vice president Joseph Fusco said the pandemic has seen recycling shift away from commercial sectors, something he expected to continue as long as various economies, including the restaurant industry, are slowed down by COVID-19. As of late last week, Casella’s Charlestown facility had processed about 165,000 tons of material this year. Recycling as a whole is down about 2 percent at the facility this year, said Fusco, due to commercial recycling dropping about 20 percent. The facility did see an increase in residential recycling by about 7 percent, he said. Nationwide, commercial waste is down about 10 percent from its normal level, according to the Solid Waste Association of North America.

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“Human behavior shifted,” said Fusco.

Back in Southie, the refuse is varied: a rolled-up rug, a clear bag containing multiple plastic wreaths, a huge piece of cardboard. One of the barrels has clumps of soggy leaves in it. Residents are beginning to start their day. A couple of people walk their dogs. There is the odd jogger or cyclist. Earbud-wearing young professionals, clutching their morning beverages, stroll past Kelley and Sandoval without a second glance.

The trash truck smells like, well, a trash truck. There is a brief discourse about the scents associated with the job. Sandoval says you get used to it; Kelley isn’t so sure.

“Sometimes, some of the barrels are bad,” he said.

Like every other aspect of everyday life, COVID-19 looms over the workday. On East Fourth Street, Leo Merullo, a supervisor with Capitol Waste Services, stands some yards away from Kelley and Sandoval’s truck and speaks to pandemic realities in this line of work, hours before Governor Charlie Baker announced he was scaling back the reopening of the state’s economy, citing rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Massachusetts.

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“You don’t know what’s in these barrels, none of these guys know who touched them, and they’re right there,” said Merullo.

Closer to the truck, both Sandoval and Kelley acknowledge that COVID-19 is concerning.

“You don’t know who is going to get it, or how hard it’s going to hit you,” said Sandoval.

A short while later, the truck rumbles down the road.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.