Pandemic Leaves Mountains Of Garbage In Its Wake

Javon Harding of Norsic & Son collects trash at a Bridgehampton residence.

There are a lot of societal breadcrumbs that can be followed through the course of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic that “celebrated” its 1-year anniversary on the East End this week: the images of empty grocery store shelves where toilet paper rolls once sat; the discarded gloves and face masks, which still blow across parking lots; the six-foot markers on the floors of stores and sidewalks; Zoom life.

But perhaps most of all — even more than the masks — the East End’s most iconic artifact of the pandemic could be the Amazon box.

Some in the scientific community are debating whether a new geologic era has begun that perhaps should be defined by the refuse of human consumption that will linger in the environment for millennia. The pandemic, the stay-at-home orders and the fears of public places, only served to add mountains of new garbage atop the mountains of garbage already piling up daily.

The weekend of March 14-16 2020, New York City stay-at-home orders loomed and fears of the raging spread of the coronavirus spurred the much publicized exodus of second homeowners. And nearly since, many have labored to try to measure exactly how many people were in residence — with the implications it could or should have on everything from infection rates to public funding and vaccination allocations.

Across the East End, the most tangible evidence of the surge in population could be seen clearly in the amount of garbage that quickly began piling up, or being picked up.

Most garbage collectors and repositories reported they hit their typical summer levels of refuse by mid-April.

“Overall for 2020, we were up 23 percent, which is a lot, but for March, April, May, June, September, October, November and December, we were up 45 percent,” said Skip Norsic, whose company purchased four new garbage trucks to keep up with the spike in demand — and manned them with the idle drivers of the company’s portable restroom business, which was almost entirely stalled with no large special events taking place.

“July and August, the summer peak, we weren’t up as much because that’s always up there. But the other months added a lot — we were up 2,195 tons of residential trash in 2020 compared to 2019, and that trend has continued into January and February of this year. For January 2020, we were flat, but this January — off the charts.”

At the town dumps in Southampton and East Hampton, the surge in population and the effects of the lockdowns and virus fears can be followed in the graphs of garbage influx.

“You can see it in the numbers, everyone just moved out here and shifted the summer ahead three months, and from there on, it was through the roof,” said Craig Fick, a crew leader at the East Hampton Town recycling and transfer station on Springs Fireplace Road.

Dumping levels quickly surged upward in late March, and by the end of April were at typical high-season levels, and remained there through to about the middle of October, when there is evidence that the population was staring to contract somewhat again as schools re-opened for delayed semesters.

In some telling instances, the traditional peaks in July and August were not quite as high as they have been in previous summers, possibly an indication of a somewhat smaller summer crowds thanks to fewer transient house guests and summer share rentals. Dumping of non-recyclable trash — known as municipal solid waste in the garbage world — in July and August 2020 at the North Sea transfer station in 2020 was well below what it had been during the same months of 2019. But in 2019, the dump took in close to 300 tons of MSW in just two months, July and August, while in 2020 it reached that threshold in five consecutive months.

Nobody would likely be surprised to know that cardboard, in particular, led the way in the surge of additional trash — a leading indicator of Amazon’s stock market lollapalooza in 2020.

In Southamton Town, the tons of cardboard discarded in April doubled from the year prior — nearly topping the peak of the 2019 summer season — and continued soaring from there. The Southampton transfer stations processed some 55 tons of cardboard in June 2020. East Hampton’s intake approximately mirrored Southampton’s, with more than 245 tons more cardboard collected in 2020 than the year before, a 50 percent increase, largely from the spike during the traditional shoulder seasons.

The surge in garbage was not just business as usual for those managing the towns’ refuse. Rising costs of disposing of waste and recyclables and the complications of keeping the operation moving during the pandemic stressed the usual system more than a typical high season.

“We had to remain 100-percent staffed, of course, so our people were having to deal with the same fear and anxieties as everybody else and had to go to work every day still,” said Christine Fetten, Southampton Town’s director of municipal works. “And they did an outstanding job. We had to make sure staff stayed safe and our constituents stayed safe — even though sometimes our constituents were not always good at following the protocols as far as mask wearing and there were some emotional moments, so there was that emotional side of things to go with all the regular logistical things.”

To go with the 50-percent increase in the amount of cardboard taken in, Southampton Town saw a 40-percent increase in recycled co-mingled containers (glass, plastic and aluminum) and about a 20-percent overall increase in household garbage. East Hampton Town saw a smaller overall hike in its household garbage, which was up more than 1,300 tons, but only about 10 percent in total — which could reflect better recycling habits in the town, or more people choosing to have their garbage collected by private carters rather than use the public centers.

Mr. Norsic’s company also rents out roll-off dumpsters, which are typically in high demand at construction sites. But with construction work stalled for nearly two months in the spring by the shut-downs, demand dipped, but Mr. Norsic said a lot of it was made up for by homeowners who were undertaking home improvement projects of their own during their time away from work.

In East Hampton, Craig Fick, a labor crew leader and the majordomo of sorts at the East Hampton Town recycling and transfer station on Springs Fireplace Road, said the same sort of trend was reflected in the transfer station’s constantly mounting pile of construction debris in the farthest corner of the property.

There were some outliers in the overall climb of trash, that might also be indicative of traditional habits being impacted by the pandemic. Among them, Mr. Fick said, the amount of paper products being dumped didn’t climb as steeply as most other materials. The wrinkle could be chalked up to the disruption of age-old routines.

“We’re dealing with the new age of technology and a lot of people probably weren’t going out and getting the newspaper like they normally would,” Mr. Fick surmised. “And magazines, I guess maybe they’re just reading that stuff online now. So, cardboard is through the roof, because everyone is getting everything sent to them at home, but those other things we didn’t really see that much more of.”

Public officials, searching for ways to quantify exactly how much the local population swelled during the pandemic — power usage, home heating fuel consumption have been other metrics — have been trying to gauge whether the garbage surge could be mined for data.

The industry standard is largely accepted to be that the average American produces about 1,600 pounds of trash each year.

But are the East End’s residents, especially those generally wealthy residents who are usually part-time residents, typical of the average of American?

“We’re trying to track all the impacts of the pandemic, and when you see that in April we were getting two to three times as much trash as it would normally would be that time of year, you say ‘Well, there’s clearly more people here,” East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “But how many more? I’m not sure our people are so average. Those who are more affluent create more garbage — because, you know, they buy more crap.”