Wake County

Odors, optics put downtown Raleigh’s underground trash-collection experiment on hold

The city of Raleigh is temporarily halting its underground trash-collection experiment after some nearby property owners and residents complained the big, semi-buried garbage bins smelled and should be moved.

The six underground Molok bins were installed at the intersection of Hargett and Wilmington streets to get trash and recycling carts off the street. After hearing “valid concerns,” Solid Waste Services Director Stan Joseph said the city will consider alternative spots for them downtown.

“Some of the concerns, the reasonable concerns, were the optics of where the system is located,” he said. “I think it is a garbage and recycling underground system so there is always the concern for public health, potential vermin that may be attracted to it. Even smell, though we did look at ways to measure impacts from the system.”

Some of those complaints came from customers at the M&F Bank branch at the same corner, according to M&F Bank CEO James Sills. M&F Bank is the second oldest black-owned bank in the United States.

“The placement of the containers near a bank, that has in-and-out traffic and it’s been in the same location for 96 years, they just didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said. “And we felt over time those containers would smell and would be, eventually, an eyesore. And we were receiving that type of complaints from our customers.”

In an email to the Raleigh City Council, city staff wrote they “did not properly notify the adjacent property owner before installing the new system – we regret the error and have apologized.”

Sills praised the city for “making the right decision” to remove the bins.

Changing locations

The city wants to find a “more appropriate” location for the bins, said Michael Moore, the city’s transportation director.

He said he understands the complaints.

“Right there, at the door of your business, you’ve got folks who are routinely unloading trash into the system,” he said, “and the thought is that it probably doesn’t present the best first impression for the community for particular establishments.”

In June, eight restaurants initially signed up to participate in the program including Empire Properties-owned Sitti, Gravy and The Raleigh Times.

In a phone call, Empire Properties Owner Greg Hatem said he didn’t complain and that the bins were working for his properties.

“I understand they’ve got to find a solution that works for everyone,” he said. “It worked well for us.”

New Technology

Brent Johnson walks by the bins to and from his parking garage and only had complaints when the street was closed to install them. He does know people who complained about the smell, he said.

Sean McKinney lives a few blocks away and noticed when the bins were installed but “hadn’t given it a second thought.” He’d never noticed smells or any problems.

The system was introduced with fanfare at a June press conference with representatives from area businesses, city representatives and Molok employees.

The bins were the first of their kind in the country and worked as intended, city officials said.

“This was a new technology that we wanted to explore,” said Damien Graham, a spokesman for the city. “And with any pilot program it gives us an opportunity to learn about things that are working well and things that aren’t working well. And in this case we learned we could have done a better job to communicating to the partners and area properties about the program and location. As such, we are going to have to stop service and remove those cans.”

The system cost $30,000, which doesn’t include the cost of installing and now removing the bins, he said.

“We believe in this system,” Joseph said. “We believe this system is going to work. We are just exploring, like any other pilot, let’s see how we can shift it to be success.”

Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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