Gateway to Recycling

October 1, 2003

12 Min Read
Gateway to Recycling

Michael Fickes

WHILE COMMUNITIES in the East have struggled for years to increase recycling and conserve precious landfill space, the Midwest historically has maintained its tradition of dumping trash in large landfills that never seem to fill up. Yet today, the midsection of the country is starting to feel the pinch of declining landfill space. Across the St. Louis region, for example, landfills are closing, and disposal costs are rising. Thus, several of the area's 90-plus municipalities and 1.4 million residents have begun to investigate recycling.

Waste leaders and conventioneers converging on St. Louis for WASTECON 2003 may notice how cities in St. Louis county are leading the Midwest's charge to translate recycling from theory to practice, one community at a time.

Declining Disposal

Nearly 80 Missouri landfills have closed since 1992, reducing the state's landfill population from more than 100 to about 20. Six landfills currently serve St. Louis' regional needs. Two are across the Mississippi River in Illinois and charge premiums for Missouri trash. Three are on the Missouri side of the river in St. Louis County. Of those three, the Fred Weber Inc. facility projects at least 50 more years of life, but the other two sites will close within three years.

A new landfill opened by Ft. Worth, Texas-based IESI Corp. may help stem the ebbing tide of disposal space. But the facility is 60 miles from St. Louis City, in neighboring Washington County.

As a result, declining landfill space already is increasing regional waste disposal costs. Industry experts say most tipping fees have risen to more than $30 per ton, up from the mid-$20 range of five years ago. Prices are expected to increase even more as existing landfills close.

Recycling Progress

In 1990, Missouri foresaw the closing of many state landfills and set a statewide goal of diverting 40 percent of the waste stream. State law aimed to jumpstart recycling by establishing landfill bans on yard wastes and other materials.

A survey conducted by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Jefferson City, estimated that the state had reached its goal and was diverting 41 percent of its solid waste stream by 2001.

In comparison to the rest of the state, the city of St. Louis' recycling has lagged. Today, the city collects 213,000 tons of residential trash and diverts 24,373 tons or 11 percent of the residential waste stream. David Berger, executive director of the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District, which promotes modern solid waste management techniques across the region, says that the region's overall diversion rate is about 30 percent. “We still have a long way to go,” he says. “The last 10 percent will be harder.”

However, the city does not track commercial recycling totals, and St. Louis County does not track recycling, residential or commercial at the municipal level. According to Sue Taylor, supervisor in waste management for the St. Louis County Department of Health, a study pegged the county diversion rate at 25 percent in 1996. No studies have been conducted since.

On the other hand, industry observers say that most of the regional trash diversion stems from the state's landfill ban on yard wastes. According to one analyst, a Solid Waste District study shows that yard and bulk wastes account for the lion's share of diversion. Municipal curbside recycling diverts only 6.27 percent of the regional waste stream, he says.

Trash Disposal Vs. Recycling

The city of St. Louis has a population of 348,000 and hosts 147,000 households. The city collects residential waste with 60 fully automated waste trucks. The trucks collect trash twice per week over four 10-hour days. All trash goes to two transfer stations operated by Waste Management Inc. (WMI), Houston. Tipping fees currently are about $29.56 per ton.

Unusual aspects of St. Louis's residential operation include the use of 1.5 cubic yard containers. Placed in a network of wide alleys running behind homes throughout the city, the desk-sized containers accommodate trash from four houses and speed collections. Automated side loaders take about 15 seconds to dump the containers — the same time it takes to dump a conventional 90-gallon container. Nick Yung, city refuse commissioner, says 85 percent of the residences use 30,000 of the containers; 15 percent still is placed in 21,000 90-gallon containers at the curb.

Yard waste accounts for more than 18,000 tons of the city's 24,400-ton residential recycling effort. Since the state yard waste ban went into effect in 1992, yard waste has been collected once a week, from March through December, in special alley containers or 90-gallon curbside carts. The yard waste flows through transfer stations and is composted by WMI. Rear-loading trucks with lift gates collect 2,412 tons of bulk waste per year, the city's second largest recycling category.

The city's general fund pays for the residential solid waste operation, including yard waste and bulk waste collection. The St. Louis city program costs about $14 million per year and ranks as the sixth least-costly residential collection program of any major city in the country. The price is low because it doesn't include paper and plastic recycling.

In 1996, the city Refuse Division implemented a recycling pilot paid for by annual state grants. The 2003 $275,000 grant funds 27 drop-off centers and curbside recycling pickups for nearly 3,000 households. Earth Circle Recycling, St. Louis, handles the curbside pickups under a five- to 20-year contract. The program covers automotive batteries, motor oil, tires, telephone books, used textiles, commingled containers and commingled fiber.

Each week, the city collects recyclables from 26 of the drop-off centers using a roll-off truck and a container truck. Earth Circle manages the 27th drop-off center. Recyclables from each center and from curbside collections go to the Smurfit-Stone Recycling Division, a St. Louis-based materials recovery facility (MRF).

“Our program is more progressive than some and less progressive than others,” says Jill Hamilton, city recycling program manager. So, Hamilton is watching the progress of three newer recycling experiments set up by the St. Louis County municipalities of Kirkwood, Fenton and O'Fallon. “I'm very interested in these programs,” she says.

PAYT in Kirkwood

In St. Louis County, the city of Kirkwood, population 30,000, has collected trash using an enterprise fund for the past 13 years. The system costs $8.75 per month per household. In 2001, the enterprise system began to lose money, and the city asked voters for a rate increase in 2002. The voters said no.

At city council meetings following the vote, Kirkwood citizens explained their opposition to the increase. As one resident summed up: “I recycle a lot and put out a few bags of trash. I don't think it's fair for me to pay higher rates when my neighbors put out more bags than I do.”

Indeed, city officials estimate that more than 80 percent of Kirkwood's households use the municipality's recycling drop-off center every month. The center receives approximately 4,000 tons of materials per year. “Voters who recycle told us they wanted a volume-based pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) system,” says Ken Yost, city public works director. “Some wanted a new system that would accept trash only or trash and recycling.”

So, Kirkwood will ask voters to choose one of three trash collection system options at the polls in 2004:

  • The status quo, in which the city will collect five 35-gallon bags or other disposable containers twice per week at a cost of $16.37 per month.

  • A PAYT system in which residents purchase stickers and affix them to trash bags. The cost would include a base monthly fee plus $1 per bag of trash. Recyclers who use the drop-off center would pay less under this system.

  • A PAYT system that includes curbside collections for both trash and recyclables. Once again, residents would pay a base fee and purchase stickers, then affix them to the bags for pickup. Residents who use the recycling drop-off center would pay less.

The base fees for PAYT plus the cost of the stickers will cost less than maintaining the existing system but still cover the city's collection costs, Yost says. Perhaps more important, the PAYT programs, if chosen, will teach residents about the economics of managing trash.

Fenton Modifies PAYT

The city of Fenton, population 4,500, recycles about 15 percent of its trash — not including yard waste. When yard waste is included, industry observers put the diversion rate at 24 percent, one of the highest in the county. Getting to this level of diversion was a hard sell, says Fenton's Mayor Dennis Hancock.

“Residents used to get their trash picked up twice a week. Now trash is picked up once a week, and we've added a once-a-week recycling collection,” he says.

Fenton converted to the system in 1999, hoping to meet the state's diversion goal without altering its commitment to pay for residential solid waste collection from city sales tax funds.

To implement the system without raising costs, the city worked with Waste Management, which has collected trash under a contract with Fenton for many years. Under the old system, trucks ran routes twice per week and collected anything residents put out for trash and recycling. Residents used their own containers, so the hauler had two people per truck throwing the containers.

The new system provides residents with 65-gallon trash cans and 22-gallon recycling bins, purchased with a $70,000 grant from the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste District. The uniform containers enable the hauler to use automated trucks run by one person. Residents can put anything into the 65-gallon trash cans. If they have more trash than that, they have to pay for it at the rate of $1 per bag. Or, they can separate recyclables from their trash and use the recycling bin. The city contracts the hauler to keep some of the income generated from recycling collections. This allows Fenton to control its costs while installing a curbside recycling program.

According to WMI, the city's 1,425 households put out no more than a couple dozen extra bags in any given week. A recent survey showed that 93 percent of Fenton's residents approved of the new system.

Squeeze Play in O'Fallon

The municipality of O'Fallon has offered recycling to its residents for nine months. During that time, the city has built a diversion rate of 17 percent, above and beyond yard waste.

With 65,000 people, O'Fallon used to contract out its trash collection. Under the new system, the city has organized an enterprise fund, bought a small fleet of four split-body trucks and begun collecting trash and recyclables from 18,000 households. Residents pay $12.65 per month for the service, comparable to the price the private hauler charged.

A squeeze play has helped the program succeed. The enterprise fund replaced the old system's 96-gallon trash cans with two 64-gallon containers. One container holds trash, and the second one is split to accommodate paper and plastic recyclables.

Since beginning the program, which took 18 months to organize, O'Fallon diverts about 300 tons of recyclables per month from a 2,100-ton waste stream. The city takes recyclables to a MRF owned by neighboring St. Peters and receives $5 per ton. The income defrays the $31 per ton cost of tipping at a nearby transfer station.

“The success of our program has created its own set of problems,” says John Griesenauer, O'Fallon's managing director of administration. “Sometimes residents put materials into the wrong side of the recycling container… they put trash in the recycling container, or they put in recyclables that St. Peters doesn't accept. This contaminates loads, and St. Peters sometimes rejects them.”

Another problem with O'Fallon's system is surplus trash. “Because we're not a PAYT system, we don't charge [when residents place extra bags on the curb],” Griesenauer says. Despite the problems, which Griesenauer believes can be solved, O'Fallon's entry into recycling has succeeded in a short period. So have the altogether different experiments being conducted in St. Louis City, Kirkwood and Fenton.

While St. Louis has been relatively slow to develop recycling programs, the varied techniques now being tested across the region will likely produce and refine a number of alternatives that St. Louis and other municipalities will find easy to adopt.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.


Private companies collect most of the trash in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Only seven municipalities in the region, including St. Louis, handle their own residential trash. The remaining 80 cities contract with private haulers. Residents in unincorporated areas of St. Louis County — about 35 percent of the county's 1 million people — also deal with private waste haulers.

Private haulers including Waste Management Inc., Houston, Allied Waste Industries Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz., and Onyx Waste Services, Milwaukee, collect commercially generated trash. Several independent haulers also provide commercial service in the region. These include Aspen Waste Systems and Zykan Waste Services, both of St. Louis. The largest privately held operator in the region is Ft. Worth, Texas-based IESI Corp., which recently entered the market with the acquisition of several local haulers and a landfill 60 miles from downtown.

Waste Management and Allied are the region's major commercial providers, according to Dan Glenzy, market area general manager for Waste Management. “I would estimate that the two companies probably handle 65 percent of the regional commercial market,” he says.
Michael Fickes


Service Area: The city of St. Louis is approximately 60 square miles. The city services all residential dwellings, which includes a 348,189 population, or 147,076 households.

Services: Solid waste collection twice per week; yard waste once per week; bulk collection once per month; recycling call (314) 353-8877 for details.

No. & Types of Trucks: Dump trucks with lift gate — 15 International/Galion; 2 Freightliner/Galion; 3 GMC/Galion; 4 International/Loadmaster. Refuse and yard waste collection side loaders — 92 Crane Carrier/Impac; 3 International/Leach. Miscellaneous roll-offs — 3 International/Galbreath; 1 International/K-Pak.

Containers: Nine 30-yard Accurate Open Top; 20 Recycling — Galbreath; 7 K-Pak compactors; 7 BesPak compactors; 5 Super Pak compactors.

No. of Employees: 163 full-time employees, 20 seasonal employees

Tip Fee at Transfer Station: $29.56

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