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Teaching residents what to put in the bin is key to maintaining recycling services

A meeting at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Commerce Bank Education Center Sept. 19, 2018.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Residents, recycling advocates and other stakeholders gathered Wednesday at the Missouri Botanical Garden to discuss the future of recycling in St. Louis.

As municipalities in the St. Louis region look for ways to continue single-stream recycling, a regional task force plans to educate residents on how to help sustain the services.

Since China imposed stricter standards in May on the amount of contamination allowed in mixed recyclables, processing companies have been forced to sell materials at a loss. That’s led Resource Management, a company that processes about 45 percent of residential single stream recycling in the St. Louis area, to suspend curbside recycling pickup on Nov. 1.

The Materials and Recycling Working Group, a task force comprising local governments and private entities, met at the Missouri Botanical Garden late Wednesday to respond to residents’ concerns about recycling services. Task force members also emphasized that residents should dispose materials that are clean and dry, and leave objects that can’t be recycled, such as plastic bags, greasy pizza boxes and needles, out of the bin.

“The local to global upheaval in recycling presents an opportunity to give a strong, consistent message to people to put the right thing in the bin and don’t put the things in the bin that should not be in the bin,” said Jean Ponzi, a recycling educator and a board member of the St. Louis-Jefferson Waste Management District.

“Our process of wishing and hoping that someone will deal with that stuff if we put it in the bin — it’s not functional,” she added. “That’s not what recycling, as a system, is designed to do.”

Ponzi is helping to execute OneSTL, a regional sustainability plan led by East-West Gateway Council of Governments. The initiative plans to launch a recycling education initiative program this fall that aims to achieve a 30 percent reduction in the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill by 2030, based on a 2015 baseline.

St. Louis-area municipalities like Kirkwood and O’Fallon that are served by Resource Management are weighing several options for handling recyclables.

Some are considering having their materials shipped to Waste Management and Waste Connections’ processing facilities that are outside the St. Louis area, said Kathrina Donegan, environmental program manager at the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. Others, she said, are thinking about alternating what types of materials are picked up each week.

“There will be solutions,” Donegan said. “In the mid-term, they’re probably going to be expensive solutions but I know that single stream will remain in place.”

Other municipalities are served by Republic Services, which will be the only processor in the St. Louis region once Resource Management terminates services. Madison County, which is mainly contracted with Republic Services, anticipates seeing a rise in recycling costs, but won’t be as affected as St. Louis County, said Kim Petzing, resource management coordinator for Madison County.

Representatives of St. Louis County municipalities plan to gather for a closed-door meeting on Tuesday to discuss alternative options for recycling processing next Tuesday.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the aim of a recycling education initiative this fall. It aims to achieve a 30 percent reduction in the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill by 2030.

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.