Yard-waste collection isn’t supposed to be so dangerous.
The city regularly collects sticks and hedge trimmings that residents put in containers or bags and place by the curb. But crews will no longer pick up yard waste in black plastic bags because they can’t see the potential dangers inside – which lately have included hypodermic needles, glass and live snakes.
Starting May 1, city collection crews will only accept yard waste that’s placed in clear plastic or biodegradable bags, or containers with handles.
Those rules have been in place for a while, including the ban on black bags. But the city hasn’t enforced the ban, said Terri Godwin Hyman, spokeswoman for Raleigh’s solid waste services department.
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Collection crews have been finding needles and snakes more frequently, and the city doesn’t want to endanger its workers.
Needles can spread diseases, including hepatitis B and C and HIV. As for snakes – venomous copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes can be found in the Triangle. Other snakes are harmless but could surprise an unsuspecting city worker.
“Our equipment requires service specialists to tear open bags at the curb to empty yard waste into the trucks,” Hyman said. “Black bags do not allow collectors to anticipate materials that may be included and present a safety and operational hazard.”
Raleigh plans to alert residents about the change by posting on social media and inserting a notice into utility bills.
Weekly yard-waste collection coincides with each neighborhood’s trash and recycling pickup. The city takes the leaves and sticks to its recycling center at 900 N. New Hope Road, where the waste is turned into mulch for sale.
The city doesn’t accept stumps or limbs or logs bigger than 6 inches in diameter or 5 feet in length. And it doesn’t take more than 15 bags of waste, or waste produced from contracted landscaping jobs.
Raleigh doesn’t keep a record of how many needles and snakes crews find in bags, said Jason Meehan, who manages yard-waste collection for the city. But he can say from experience that crews are having more problems with snakes recently.
“I saw one myself and I’m a supervisor,” Meehan said. “I was helping pick up some debris on the street and saw a stick, and right before I picked it up I noticed it was a copperhead.”
Meehan, who’s worked for Raleigh for about 18 months, instructs workers to hold black bags away from their bodies. He saw what could happen during his 17 years as a sanitation worker in New York City.
“One of the guys got punctured with a needle and immediately went to the hospital,” he said. “It’s nerve-racking for the employee because it takes multiple days to get the results back and you’re wondering, ‘What if it was an HIV-positive drug user?’ ”
Some residents mix their trash in with yard waste, and Meehan said needles found in the bags are likely used by people with diabetes who inject insulin.
Raleigh doesn’t have a needle exchange program. But the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition recently partnered with Sigma Health Services to open an exchange in the parking lot at 2321 Crabtree Blvd., off Capital Boulevard, from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays.