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Economy & Business

St. Louis Incentive Program For Trash Truck Drivers Is Working, But Recycling Is Still On Hold

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Jim Spies
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A staffing shortage has prevented St. Louis from offering regular recycling services since July. For now, some, like Holly Hills resident Jim Spies, are making the effort to drop off their recycling at designated locations. Spies uses an old kid trailer attached to his bike to transport the recycling.

About every week and a half, Jim Spies loads up the small kid trailer attached to his bike with flattened cardboard boxes and other recyclables and makes the one-mile trip to the nearest blue bin, in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis.

Spies started this routine about a month ago, when he found out the city was no longer separating recycling from trash in his alley due to a staffing shortage.

“It’s less convenient than just walking out to our alley, but it’s not particularly inconvenient,” said Spies, who’s been a bike commuter for 15 years.

“We are already overfilling landfills, we’re already trying to find places to put our trash. The more we can divert from that, the better,” he said.

For the next few months, residents like Spies who want to make sure their recyclables don’t end up in landfills can bring items to 30 recycling centers across the city.

Nick Dunne, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the city’s Refuse Division is on track to resume regular recycling operations by early December thanks to an uptick in hiring.

Dunne credits a new incentive program that offers a $3,000 bonus to new hires after they complete a work testing period. Applications for heavy equipment operator jobs jumped to nearly 170 last month, up from 12 in July.

But Dunne said fewer than two dozen of those applicants were certified by the city, mainly because they didn’t have a required Commercial Driver's License permit. He said the city has struggled to hire within the department for many reasons.

“The refuse job is not an easy one,” he said. “You have to operate heavy equipment, especially if you’re doing bulk pickup — there are heavier items. So there are definitely some physical limitations with that. Also I think the shortage in refuse is part of the larger shortage of labor we’re seeing across the country.”

The city hired 10 full-time employees in August for the Refuse Division. But Dunne said more workers are needed.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure people know these jobs are available to them, and we definitely want to instill civic pride with those who do want to apply and work for the city,” he said. “We’re just trying to remain optimistic that we can get back to providing city services at pre-COVID levels.”

Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer, who represents the 13th Ward in south St. Louis, said she’s been getting complaints from constituents who weren’t aware that recycling pickup has been on hold.

“I’m sure that it’s frustrating,” she said. “People are paying for this service and they should be getting it. But we are in a pandemic, we had a hiring freeze for a long time that resulted in a shortage of drivers and the hiring freeze has affected our services.”

Schweitzer said it’s important to get recycling services back as soon as possible. Once that happens, she hopes people will also think twice about what they’re recycling.

“We’ve all been there looking at our recycling or looking at some item and thinking to ourselves, ‘I don’t know if this is recyclable, but I’m going to put it in the recycling just in case,’” she said. “And that actually isn’t the best way to go about it.”

Only about 30% of materials thrown into blue recycling bins in St. Louis actually get recycled, according to the mayor’s office. That’s because recyclables like glass and cardboard boxes often get mixed with food-stained items like pizza boxes and other non-recyclables.

Schweitzer said that contaminates an entire bin, which must then go to the landfill.

“There is no person who's scrubbing out peanut butter containers for us on the other end of this. And that's the reality,” she said. “All of us need to do our part.”

To check whether items are recyclable in St. Louis, visit the city’s waste disposal guide.

Recycling can be dropped off at the following locations:

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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