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To keep recycling, St. Louis municipalities find new places to send materials

Workers sort recycling at a conveyor belt at Resource Management's processing facility in 2015.
Veronique LaCapra
St. Louis Public Radio
Resource Management has stopped accepting single-stream recyclables, forcing Kirkwood, Brentwood and other municipalities to send their recylables somewhere else for processing.

As waste processor Resource Management terminates its single stream recycling services, some St. Louis area municipalities will begin sending recyclable metal, paper and plastics to new destinations Thursday.

In August, Resource Management informed its customers that it would stop accepting single-stream recycling at the end of October. Contamination in recyclable materials led China to impose stricter policies on the materials it would accept, which raised costs for processors like Resource Management.

Since then, municipalities contracted with the company have sought other options to maintain residential recycling services. Kirkwood and Brentwood signed contracts with Republic Services, which processes recycling for much of the St. Louis area.

“We looked at several different ideas: self-hauling, meaning hauling our materials to a processor outside Missouri,” said Bill Bensing, Kirkwood’s public services director. “That looked profitable for us but it turns out the cost of transportation was high. Right now, the one-year agreement with Republic Services seems to be the best option and gives us a little time to decide how we’re going to handle [recycling] in the future.”

Before China’s policies changed this year, Kirkwood collected revenue from Resource Management for providing recyclables, Bensing said. Then after the import ban, the company charged Kirkwood $35 per ton of materials. Republic Services is charging Kirkwood $115 per ton, but the city won’t raise collection fees for residents.

“The city plans to absorb the cost until an alternative can be identified to reduce that cost,” Bensing said.

The city of Brentwood hired Republic Services for three years and does not plan to raise fees for its residents. Waste Management, which picks up recycling for a major portion of the St. Louis area, also signed a three-year agreement with Republic Services.

O’Fallon, Missouri, took a different direction for handling recycling. The city signed a contract with the city of St. Peters, which operates its own processing plant, until the end of the year. The city will have crews take plastics, glass and cans to St. Peters; paper and cardboard would have to be dropped off at the O’Fallon Environmental Services building.

It would have cost at least $1 million a year to maintain single-stream services, which officials determined wasn’t feasible, said Tom Drabelle, a spokesman for the city of O’Fallon. They’ve also launched an effort to educate residents about keeping recyclables clean and dry. If a resident’s cart contains contaminated materials, they will be tagged with a notice to inform that resident that the materials were too dirty to be collected.

“We expect this to be a transition period and we know there’s going to be hiccups along the way,” Drabelle said. “Hopefully with the education process, we can get through it.”

O’Fallon officials will continue to look for better options for recycling paper and cardboard. It’s in the city’s interest to keep recyclable materials out of the landfill because increased amounts of waste could raise trash collection costs, Drabelle said.

Republic Services expects the amount of recyclable materials to increase by about 2,500 tons per month. The greater load will raise processing costs and required adding a second shift to the company’s plant in south St. Louis County, general manager Brent Batliner said.

“What’s truly driving our cost up is dealing with removing contamination from the waste stream,” Batliner said. “That is causing our staff to bring on more people, causing our staff to make more investments into our plants that’s had to add equipment to remove a lot of the items from the public that we don’t ask for.”

In November, a recycling task force that includes Republic Services and East-West Gateway Council of Governments plans to launch a public awareness campaign to educate residents on proper disposal of recyclable materials. The effort is a part of the task force’s goal to reduce 30 percent of the waste that ends up in landfills by 2030.

“The biggest problem is that we leave our food in our plastic containers and the materials become contaminated,” said Aaron Young, sustainability planning manager for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. “They become not economically feasible to recycle, so we’re trying to fix that. We just need to get the word out to a broader audience about how people can recycle more responsibly.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

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