St. Paul’s revamped collection program has boosted recycling across the city, though it has fallen short of projections and the city’s recycling contractor faces penalties for missed pickups.
More than 22,000 tons were collected after the program launched in early 2017, up about 13 percent from 2016, according to the program’s annual report. On the city’s East Side and in the Payne-Phalen, Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods, tonnage collected rose more than 20 percent.
“Over time, folks are getting used to the program,” Kris Hageman, recycling and solid waste program manager, said at a St. Paul City Council committee meeting Wednesday. “Things are working more smoothly.”
Still, city staffers were expecting a 35 percent increase over 2016, according to the report. The city sees several explanations: Residents are recycling more lightweight materials, such as plastic and cardboard, than heavier items such as glass and newspaper, the report said. They’re also reducing their waste overall.
Residents are also trying to recycle more items that should be put in the trash, according to the report. Hageman told the council that the “residual rate” — the percentage of nonrecyclable items, such as plastic bags, left over after the sorting process — rose from less than 2 percent in 2016 to about 7 percent in 2017. It’s a big jump, she said, but is typical for cities that use carts instead of bins.
The recycling program, which nonprofit Eureka Recycling operates through a contract with the city, rolled out in January 2017 when 64-gallon lidded carts replaced recycling bins. Complaints about missed recycling pickups quickly followed and resurfaced this winter as Eureka drivers continued to skip alleys they deemed too icy to navigate.
Some council members voiced frustration with Eureka on Wednesday, saying they’ve heard from residents whose recycling hasn’t been picked up for weeks at a time. Council Member Chris Tolbert said garbage trucks have been able to navigate alleys when Eureka trucks have not, and asked whether the city could take action against Eureka for not meeting the terms of its contract.
“It seems like there’s a problem if there’s no accountability,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker.
The city pays Eureka $3.67 per household each month. Based on that rate, Hageman said, the city is planning to withhold 92 cents per household for each week of missed pickups due to icy alleys since the March 6 snowstorm.
Eureka co-president Kate Davenport said in an e-mail Wednesday that because Eureka representatives did not attend the committee meeting, she was not in a position to comment on statements made there. She said missed pickups happen for a variety of reasons, and the city is allowed, under the contract, to withhold payments under certain circumstances.
“Icy and snowy conditions continue to cause accessibility and safety issues in alleys along our collection routes,” Davenport said. “We are in regular communication with the city about ways to collect recycling in these alleys that protect both the property of city residents and the safety of our drivers.”
In February, Davenport told the Star Tribune that St. Paul should consider plowing its own alleys, instead of relying on residents to hire private contractors.
On Wednesday, Council Member Dan Bostrom brought up that possibility and asked city staff to collect preliminary data on the number of alleys that would need to be plowed.