'They're Not Recycling': St. Louisans See Blue Bins Dumped as Trash

The city claims it's only combining garbage with recycling in cases of 'contamination.' Witnesses disagree

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click to enlarge The words "Please Recycle" are spray painted above a brown dumpster that reads "Trash Only."
In St. Louis City, residents say trash trucks are combining their trash and recycling.

Last spring, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones announced that the city was resuming alley recycling pickups. The city had suspended service months before, citing a shortage of trucks and workers, and the announcement during Jones’ State of the City address generated good publicity — and relief.

But nearly seven months since the city supposedly resumed alleyway pickup, a growing body of evidence suggests St. Louis quietly moved away from separate trash and recycling pickups — routinely emptying recycling containers into garbage trucks.

In a statement made to 13th Ward Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer, which Schweitzer shared on Twitter, the Streets Department suggested refuse workers are making value judgments on recycling bins.

“If high levels of contamination (i.e. trash) are seen along an alley recycling collection route, those blue dumpsters may be collected with trash dumpsters,” the statement read, before encouraging people to use city-designated drop-off locations to ensure recycling.
Nick Dunne, Public Information Officer for the Mayor’s office, doubled down on the statement in a message to the RFT on Friday.

“The City continues to collect refuse and recycling separately except in instances where the recycling has been contaminated,” Dunne wrote. “We encourage residents to contact the Citizens Service Bureau at 622.4800, online or @stlcsb on Twitter if they have concerns about collection.”

Many residents, however, say it’s all too clear city workers are simply loading bins into trash trucks, with no inspection.

Dan Lovings has seen it in the Academy neighborhood for years. Over the past two weeks, Princeton Heights Neighborhood Association board vice president Derrick Neuner has only heard residents' complaints heat up.

Neuner says he realizes city refuse workers are understaffed and unpaid. But he believes the city should acknowledge what’s happening with recycling.

“I think one of the things they have to be more accountable for is that they're not recycling,” he says. “It's a waste of our time. It's a waste of their time. And so it just makes me very frustrated.”

John Sahaida doesn’t even try to recycle in his alley anymore. He packs his boxes, bottles and paper into his car and hauls them to the drop-off center at a Carondelet firehouse.

Sahaida has seen his recycling combined with trash one too many times. A trash truck rolls down his alley, picks up his recycling and trash, and swiftly empties it all in the same truck. No one looks into the dumpsters to gauge contamination. He has even captured video of the workers in action.

An orange dump truck raises a blue recycling bin an alley.
John Sahaida captured a city trash truck on his Ring camera picking up both his recycling and trash bins in his South city alleyway.

“If you want to actually really recycle, you drive it to like a firehouse,” he says, chuckling. “And it's like, ‘What is going on? Why is this not a priority? It's a basic city service.’”

Sahaida finds the situation infuriating. He pays the $14 monthly recycling fee assessed to all city homes and carefully organizes what he's discarding.

“A lot of people take the time to separate this stuff out to get it in the right place,” he says. “And just to see it all dumped in the same trash truck … it's just mind-boggling to me.”

As recently as the summer of 2021, city officials admitted it was mixing together trash and recycling during a labor shortage. In response, it opened nearly 30 locations where residents could drop off recycling.

But even after Mayor Jones formally announced recycling would return on May 31, 2022, problems continued. Initially, as the city struggled to pick up recycling, trash seemed to get short shrift. During the summer of 2022, when the Refuse Division was short 10 drivers and seven trucks, trash piled up in alleyways, sitting there for weeks. Through June 2022, the city logged 4,700 complaints –– more than double the amount in June 2021.
As trash pickups have increased, those complaints have lessened. But skepticism about recycling remains. In September, FOX2 reported a user-submitted video of trash and recycling being combined. Alderwoman Schweitzer reached out to the Streets Department after hearing complaints from residents, writing on Twitter, “A lot of people have reached out to me recently saying they’ve seen trash and recycling being combined.”

South city resident Sarah Wood Martin had heard similar allegations for years as the 11th ward alderwoman. But she had never seen it herself.

The morning after reading Schweitzer’s Tweet, trucks rumbled down her alley. She walked to her back porch. There, she watched the dump truck take every trash and recycling bin in the alley and place them in the same truck without inspection.

Wood Martin also understands that the issue is nuanced. “So complicated,” she says. For example, the dumpsters use unique trucks to pick up the dumpsters, which have hooks, barring the city from contracting out to a private company.

At the most basic level, though, the city just lacks resources and it lacks drivers. It's been a problem for many administrations, she says. “Only so many people and a lot of dumpsters."

She says she understands if the city cannot pick up recycling. But if they can’t, she just wants to know.

“Just level with people,” she says.

This article was updated on Dec. 16 at 2 p.m.

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