Though he lives in the middle of a major city, Shelden Moe hasn’t paid a trash hauler since 2005. In exchange for tossing his garbage in a neighboring business’ dumpster, he simply fires up his lawn mower to cut their boulevard grass.
“It was a pretty good deal,” said Moe, who lives in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul. “Now? This is the first time in years I have to pay something. I don’t like it.”
On Oct. 1, St. Paul rolled out a new organized trash collection system that issued city-owned carts to more than 70,000 property owners. It’s the first time in the capital city’s 177-year history that residents are required to hire someone to cart away their trash. And it has sparked a popular uprising.
Last week, opponents delivered petitions with more than 6,000 signatures demanding a public vote they hope will end the garbage service forever. The main objection is the $20 to $34 monthly cost, and no one feels it more than the owners of an estimated 9,300 St. Paul properties that didn’t pay a hauler before.
Some of them create minuscule amounts of waste. Others toted their trash to work, or shared a cart with neighbors, or dumped their garbage illegally. For them, the old “free agent” system allowing them to live off the garbage grid was cheaper and better.
But that system had its own costs, said Lisa Hiebert, a spokeswoman for the public works department.
“We really didn’t know where their garbage was going,” Hiebert said. “Yes, there were people sharing and yes, there are zero-wasters. And we heard of situations where family members were taking garbage to their house in another city and another county. But there were also people dumping in our parks, dumping in our alleys and dumping in other people’s carts.”
Last year, she said, it cost $600,000 for public works and parks and recreation staff to clean up illegally dumped trash.
So the City Council decided that every property — from single family homes to each unit of a fourplex — must have its own trash service and its own cart. The council held a public hearing before adopting the trash ordinances in November 2017.
“It is not uncommon for cities of our size to require everybody to have trash service,” Hiebert said.
Still, it’s plenty disruptive to people like John Faley, a Macalester-Groveland resident who hasn’t paid to have his garbage picked up for a decade.
“I would put one grocery sack of trash in the can a week,” he said. “Then it started costing too much.”
A friend suggested Faley cancel his $30-per-month hauler contract and take his trash to a local transfer station. For years, Faley stored his trash in three metal cans in his garage and used his old Subaru to haul it to the transfer station three or four times a year. His cost: about $50 a year.
“I am not happy with the way this was decided,” he said. “I am happy there are not trucks rolling down the alley every day, but, the way this was decided, this did not seem like democracy in action to me.”
Sally Coddon, who lives in the North End neighborhood, objects to the price, not the concept.
“I’ve paid for a garbage hauler my whole life, but I shared it with my neighbor,” she said. “If they would have made the prices more fair, nobody would be complaining.”
Sharing a bigger cart used to cost Coddon less than $10 a month, she said. Her costs have more than doubled.
“How can they say you don’t have the right to share?” she said. “I know a lot people who just share, or dump it at their work. They might take it over to their mother’s house.”
Keith Kamp has done exactly that. His parents own a small grocery store a couple blocks from Kamp’s North End home. He said he brings a kitchen bag of garbage to their store’s dumpster each week. Then the organized program started and he received a $96 bill from his city-assigned hauler.
“I haven’t paid it yet,” he said, adding that he’s signed the petitions. “I mean it’s not going to kill you, but there are lot of other things you want to spend $96 on.”
Kristi Moore lives on the East Side and owns 14 apartment buildings. For the past six years, she’s taken her personal trash to a dumpster at one of her buildings. She intends to keep doing that, while paying for the lowest level of service.
“There should be an opt out,” she said of essentially paying twice for garbage hauling. “I’m not that person who gripes about every tax and assessment, but there needed to be some flexibility.”
Flexibility is what Dr. Kristin Becker is seeking as well, especially since her Frogtown family of three doesn’t produce enough trash to fill even the smallest cart over a full year. Thanks to growing much of their own food, buying groceries in bulk and recycling or composting, Becker said her family’s trash output fills an 11-ounce bag — about the same size Halloween candy comes in — every four to six weeks.
Becker said she understands the city’s interest in ensuring that people aren’t dumping their trash elsewhere. But she said city officials should have done more research to find out how many of those 9,300 properties were cheating instead of, like her family, conscientiously reducing.
“I think the city needs to ask us and find out,” said Becker, who has helped lead opposition to the plan. “I feel that the city didn’t do its investigative work and that’s why we are in this mess.”