St. Paul has a complicated relationship with garbage.
And on a beautiful sunny Saturday, a thousand St. Paul residents converged on the State Fairgrounds, looking to solid waste the morning.
Four times a year, the city organizes drop-offs so residents can dump or recycle bulky waste responsibly. This was the first drop-off of the year, and dozens of volunteers were on hand to help wrestle junk out of trunks and divert useful things away from the dumpsters and off to donation or repair.
“There’s a kind of positive spirit to an event like this,” said Aubrey Fonfara, an environmental program specialist for the city of St. Paul, looking around at the bustling site.
For six straight hours, vehicles rolled in, loaded with lumpy mattresses, rusty bicycles, rubble from home improvement projects, ugly couches and broken snowblowers.
And for six straight hours, people in St. Paul smiled when they talked about garbage.
People smiled at the rows of old bikes being collected and sent on to repair shops. They smiled at the brittle stacks of fluorescent bulbs that hadn’t been tossed out to leak mercury into a landfill. They smiled at the stuff in the “reuse” pile that anyone was welcome to take home: piles of skis, stacks of pots and pans, a perfectly good sofa with hideous floral upholstery.
“This is not a moneymaking event for the city,” said Como Community Council representative Maggie Zimmerman. “This is a form of community service.”
The stuff that ends up at the drop-off includes stuff that isn’t getting dumped illegally around the city. Illegal dumping cost the city $600,000 in cleanup costs in 2017 alone.
The goodwill extended up the long line of cars waiting their turn to an intersection where one St. Paul resident was idling with $20 worth of DIY project debris in his car (there’s a fee to drop off items) and $10 in his wallet.
The man rolled down the window to ask a State Fair police officer who was directing traffic if he could duck out of line to hit the ATM in a nearby gas station.
You could, the officer told him, but you’d have to go all the way back to the end of the line.
Then State Fair Police Officer Todd Miller reached into his wallet and handed a complete stranger a $20 bill so he wouldn’t lose his place in line.
It was a St. Paul garbage miracle, and we are all cleaner for it.
The resident dropped off his debris, hit the cash machine, repaid Officer Miller, and bought him a drink and some snacks. Minnesota Nice begets Minnesota Nice.
The line stretched on and at the very front, the last stop before the dump trucks and recycling stations, stood the president of the St. Paul City Council with a stack of fliers and a reminder that it didn’t have to be this way.
‘‘Did you know?’’ the fliers said. “St. Paul citywide garbage service includes bulky items!”
“Most of the people didn’t know,” said Council President Amy Brendmoen, throwing up her hands in exasperation, as the last car pulled away and the drop-off ended.
Years of planning, months of court challenges, and people still aren’t quite sure what the new St. Paul trash system actually does.
Last year, before the city started subsidizing curbside bulk pickup, 1,100 people dropped their bulk waste off at the fairgrounds. Last Saturday, nine months into the new system, the event drew 1,070.
A single day of trash togetherness won’t settle the St. Paul garbage wars.
Some people like garbage collection the easy way. Some prefer the old St. Paul way: when they could pick the hauler of their choice off a list of 15 names; when trash day came six days a week in some alleys; when 9,000 households never signed up for any trash collection at all; and nobody asked questions about where those used pizza boxes ended up.
But if you take nothing else away from this story, remember this: St. Paul residents can absolutely leave a few bulky items curbside now.
The first two or three bulk items will be hauled away for free, and residents can negotiate a fee for any additional items with their hauler. Or if you have more than a few things to tidy up, you can haul it all to the next citywide drop-off, June 22 in the North End.
For more information, visit stpaul.gov and search for “citywide drop-off events.”