After one year, resident response to Cape's recycling program still strong

Sunday, May 22, 2011
Recycling crew leader Jack Yarbrough watches Friday as one of the recycling trucks empties four and a half to five tons of recyclables inside the Cape Girardeau Public Works Department building on Southern Expressway. Yarbrough said "participation is up tremendously" since the new automated trash and recycling program began a year ago. (Laura Simon)

Most see soda cans, plastic bags and empty milk containers as nothing more than trash.

Casey Mills sees opportunity.

Throughout the week, Mills and his roommate toss junk mail, pizza boxes and sticky soda cans -- unsorted -- into their big green recycling cart. Every Thursday, one will wheel the 96-gallon bin to the curb, where it will await the relatively new city trucks and their lanky grappling arms that collect the refuse and haul it away.

"This new system makes it a lot easier," said Mills, who also organizes riverfront cleanups. "It's so convenient. With the way it is, it doesn't make much sense not to recycle."

A record number of Cape Girardeau residents agree. Since the city implemented its new automated trash collection system, people are recycling at a record pace. At the one-year mark, city officials are more than pleased and are even planning ways to enhance the program, including making recycling available to businesses and apartments as soon as this summer.

Jeff Garland with the Cape Girardeau Public Works Department makes his Friday morning automated trash collection rounds on Clark Avenue in Cape Girardeau.

"It far exceeded any expectations I had," public works director Tim Gramling said. "We started out the first month or two and the numbers were high, but we didn't know if it was a fluke or what. But it turns out the numbers held out the entire year."

Last May, the city converted to the new system for about 11,000 residences at a cost of about $2.4 million. General revenue bonds were issued to be repaid by collection charges that did not increase from $16.75 per month.

The city bought six new trucks and issued two new bins to each household, a green bin for recycling and a 65-gallon tan bin for garbage. The trucks eliminated the need for two-man crews and five positions were eliminated through attrition, along with each one's $35,000 to $40,000 salary and benefits package.

At the time, Gramling was optimistic it would be well received by the public. He wouldn't have been surprised to see an increase of 30 to 35 percent. But in its first year, the city's solid waste department collected 714 tons more than the year before for a 65 percent increase.

"We really have just sort of been blown away by it," Gramling said. "I know there's probably somebody out there who doesn't like the program, but I haven't heard from them."

From May 2009 to April 2010, the city collected 1,101 tons of recycling under the old program, which required the material to be sorted into six categories. In its first year under the new program, which doesn't require sorting, the city collected 1,815 tons.

More people are recycling, too. In the year before the new program, 2,720 homes on average per week recycled using the old system. Under the new system, 4,069 Cape Girardeau residences recycle for about a 50 percent increase.

Not that there haven't been a few minor bumps along the way. In October, the trucks started breaking down because of a mechanical snag. But the manufacturer, Peterbilt, fixed the problem by making modifications to the trucks at no cost to the city.

Then, just last month, a Cape Girardeau man was injured by one of the truck's mechanical arms. Initial reports said the truck pulled the man a few yards from the end of his driveway as he tried to pick up some trash on the curb.

But that incident was overblown, said solid-waste supervisor Mike Tripp. The truck's grappling arm "nipped him around the knee and knocked him down," Tripp said. The man was taken to a hospital and treated for his injuries.

'Jumped on board'

Overall, Tripp said the program has been wildly popular.

"The residents have really jumped on board with the recycling aspect of it," Tripp said. "It's been a huge success. If we tried to go back to the old system, the people would kill us."

Plans are in the works that could offer the recycling program to businesses and apartments as soon as this summer, Gramling said. Currently, the collections only extend to homes and apartments with three or fewer units. But the department is in negotiations with some private-sector recycling haulers to provide a bigger baler at the city's processing center. Under a deal, the selected company would install a temporary building at the department's Southern Expressway facility and a baler that would work 10 times faster than their current one. The city's machine makes about two bales an hour and a new one would produce 12 bales an hour.

"Our smaller baler is the biggest limiting factor right now," Gramling said. "It can barely handle the quantity we got now. If we started bringing in commercial, the stuff would just start stacking up. We wouldn't be able to keep up."

Such improvements would allow the companies that contract with businesses and apartment owners to bring the recycling materials for collection at the processing center, Gramling said. Gramling hopes to bring a contract proposal to the Cape Girardeau City Council this summer and implement the program shortly after.

"We've gotten a lot of requests from businesses about a desire to recycle," he said. "If they recycle now, they have to pay someone to take it St. Louis. That's not very cost effective."

But that would only be a temporary measure. The city has plans to build a new transfer station by 2013 at the Southern Expressway facility that would handle all trash and recycling. Currently, solid waste is taken to the transfer station off South Sprigg Street before it is hauled to a landfill in Washington County, Mo.

Recycling is taken to the processing center on Southern Expressway before a contracted company takes it to a recycling center in St. Louis. A new transfer station would handle both at the same site, Gramling said, including the bigger baler.

In the meantime, Gramling said, the residential recycling program will continue to roll along. He hopes an increasing number of people will recycle, meaning less and less tonnage will end up in the landfill.

Customers seem happy with the result.

"I think it's a great step forward for Cape," said Adam Gohn, a law student and member of the Girardeau Goes Green Advisory Board. "When you make things as easy as possible for people, large increases are what you are going to see. As a Cape resident, I'm very happy I don't have to sort it anymore. It's a really nice program."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

2007 Southern Expressway, Cape Girardeau MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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