Trash Talk

From the top of Mount Milam to the depths of the Pit with the people who take out St. Louis' garbage

Yung, 50, has been refuse commissioner since 1972, a span in which he has seen positive changes in the way in which trash is collected and handled. "Thirty years ago, we burned the trash in incinerators," he notes, "but that stopped in 1976 when the EPA said, "Too many particulates.' We started with Dumpsters in 1979. Before that, people used to buy their own cans or plastic bags, and they would set them out in the alley or street, and we would come by with the old-style garbage trucks -- the driver in front, two laborers on the back -- and they would throw it in the back of the truck."

Today, the Refuse Division's annual budget of $14 million covers a range of services, from trash pickup to recycling to vehicle maintenance. Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers (commonly called Dumpsters, a brand name). According to Yung, the ratio of containers to single-family dwellings is 1-to-4. And though few cities use them, the 300-gallon-capacity containers that punctuate St. Louis' alleys have made trash disposal a real convenience here: Citizens may take out trash anytime they wish and throw sizable items in the Dumpsters, and they never have to buy trash cans.

Those parts of the city that don't have alleys are served by wheeled roll-out carts, which the residents brings out to the curb on certain days. "Many municipalities use the cart system, and we would also like to go to that," says Yung. "It assigns the individual responsibility for their own trash, and it encourages recycling. Dumpsters create problems because they're shared by four households and people tend to stack things around the Dumpsters. So, if you live at the house the Dumpster is behind, you may end up with furniture or trash bags stacked around the back of your property." Plus, says Yung, Dumpsters, because of their secluded locations and yawning capacity, represent an easy drop for questionable items: "People put all kinds of things in them, everything from hot-water heaters to sofas to engine blocks. We've had whole motorcycles put in them. Just about anything that'll fit, they put in there."

City refuse commissioner Nick Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers.
Jennifer Silverberg
City refuse commissioner Nick Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers.

Regular free trash pickup is one of the perks of city living. St. Louis County, with its Balkan municipalities, has no counterpart to the city's Refuse Division. The county performs road maintenance and a host of other public services, but it doesn't do solid-waste pickup. Instead, the municipalities contract with independent haulers to pick up the trash. And although there are lots of mom-and-pop-type operations, 40 of the 349 licensed haulers are designated "residential haulers." These are the large outfits such as Superior Services, Allied and Waste Management, which account for the lion's share of refuse pickup in the county. Five municipalities -- Kirkwood, University City, Normandy, Valley Park and Pine Lawn -- have their own refuse departments; in these cases, the city itself is the licensed hauler.

In the city of St. Louis, the refuse trucks make 200 trips over the scales each day, hauling a combination of Dumpster/cart trash (four times a week), yard waste (once a week) and bulky trash (once a month). In fiscal year 1998-99, the Refuse Division handled some 229,000 tons of all three types of trash, a mere dollop compared with the 5.2 million tons a year generated by New Yorkers. Obviously this volume would be greatly reduced by serious recycling efforts at every level of trash processing. In many county municipalities, residents are given plastic containers in which to place glass, aluminum and newspapers. Some chide the city for not having a neighborhood recycling program. Yung, however, notes that a curbside-recycling pilot program is going on in seven city ZIP codes: "We give them containers, which are picked up once a week. The bottles, plastic, etc., are sorted at the curb by the refuse worker." The service, says Yung, costs $24 a year; the city absorbs the rest of the cost. Whats notable is that people will actually pay to be allowed to recycle.

Thats a good sign, says Rebecca Tannlund, recycling-program manager with the citys Refuse Division. According to Tannlund, 70 percent of household trash can be recycled, if folks will only make the effort. And although the curbside recycling program may be convenient, it's not the only means of practicing recycling. Special Dumpsters located throughout the city take glass, newspapers, aluminum and plastic. The catch is, you have to get the refuse to these containers.

The city treats recycling as a business: Common household recyclables are sold to Smurfit, a local recycling processor, for a modest sum, and scrap metal is sold to scrapyards at the current rate of about $35 a ton. But other items make their way into the trash stream -- batteries, motor oil, tires -- that are a hassle to deal with and even cost the city to recycle. Used alkaline batteries are accepted by outlets such as Radio Shack or Circuit City; oil is accepted for recycling at Jiffy Lube and other oil-change stations; tires are sent to a rubber-shredding operation. Overall, recycling is a business that must operate in the red. "It is a misconception that recycling is a lucrative business," Tannlund declares. "The city doesn't really make any profit, not on any of the items, once you take into account the expense of providing the bins, the sorting-out and the hauling. Even the items that bring a monetary return, unfortunately, we don't break even on."

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