Columbia solid waste manager turns trash into treasure

35-year veteran has overseen dramatic expansion of utility
Thursday, September 30, 2010 | 5:13 p.m. CDT; updated 10:50 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 1, 2010
Richard Wieman leads a train he built out of recycled plastic barrels during the Wabash Station Centennial Celebration on July 16. His other sculptures include a cowboy, a birthday cake and even a metal Elvis.

COLUMBIA — You might not expect the person who oversees Columbia’s waste collection to recycle your waste into artwork, but that's the sort of guy Richard Wieman is. In fact, he's been doing things a little differently ever since he entered the city’s Solid Waste Division 35 years ago.

Wieman, Columbia’s solid waste utility manager, has led the Public Works Department’s Solid Waste Division through substantial expansion during his tenure, which has seen the city’s population more than double.  

The future of refuse

The city of Columbia has a 10-year vision for its Solid Waste Utility that calls for expanding recycling and composting opportunities, increasing use of alternative fuels, developing land use and stewardship strategies and boosting community awareness. Click here to see it.

He has initiated such projects as yard-waste collection, the opening of a compost facility in 1991, Missouri’s first permanent household hazardous waste collection program, the state’s first bioreactor landfill and the city’s recycling program.

Wieman recently received national recognition for his work from the American Public Works Association, but he said the award really should go to everyone who lives in Columbia.

“Columbia is a special place, and it’s a privilege to work for this community,” he said. “The city’s progressive thinking has allowed me to work outside the box.”

'Thinking better'

Wieman, a Troy native, earned a degree in agricultural education from MU and worked as a teacher and in construction before being hired in 1975 by the Public Works Department.

At that time, the Solid Waste Division provided only residential and commercial trash collection, and it operated the landfill. When Wieman came, all that began to change.

The division now runs more than 50 programs.

“It’s a different opportunity every day to either evaluate a program, go out and talk to people or to start a brand new program,” he said. “It’s what keeps me coming back each day.”

One of Wieman’s first innovations was restructuring residential trash collection routes so that drivers only have to make right-hand turns. That saves time and money.

“I’ve always tried to look at things and figure out how to do them better,” he said. “It’s thinking better.”

One of Wieman’s latest projects is the recycling bin pilot program, which replaces blue recycling bags with two bins per household, one for fiber, such as cardboard and paper; the other for recyclable cans, bottles and plastics. The experiment is happening in three Columbia neighborhoods and thus far has prompted a dramatic increase in the volume of recycling.

During Wieman’s tenure, the recycling program has evolved tremendously.

In 1985, Wieman managed a citywide recycling pilot program that led to monthly curbside recycling collection. In the early ’90s, the city placed recycling containers downtown and expanded its curbside pickup to twice a month. In 1998, weekly collection began.

“We just do things a little differently,” Wieman said “We try to look at ways to improve what we’re doing and always take into consideration what our customers want and need.”

Beauty and the waste

Fan blades, chains, kickstands, car motors, wire, cement mixers. These items are waste to many people once they’ve served their original purpose, but to Wieman, they’re pieces of art.

“I look at something and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s good for someone’s shoulders or those kickstands look like legs,’” he said. “I try to take one piece that reminds me of something and build off that.”

Wieman, along with his wife, Sheila, welds together metal items to create all sorts of sculptures, such as a cowboy, a birthday cake and even a metal Elvis. This summer, Wieman built a train in which children could ride for the Wabash Station 100th anniversary celebration. He said the train cars are made from recycled plastic barrels. 

Wieman recently finished a piece called “American Hero,” in which a soldier pays tribute to a fallen soldier. He said the idea for the sculpture began with two World War II helmets.

“People know we do this kind of thing, so they bring us pieces we can use,” Wieman said. “We have a whole collection at home.”

On being recognized

In August, the American Public Works Association — an international, not-for-profit group of public works employees — presented Wieman the Professional Manager of the Year in Solid Waste award.

The award recognizes “exceptional management and innovations to the public sector solid waste industry,” according to a city of Columbia news release.

“I was taken aback by it, really,” Wieman said.

Wieman said the American Public Works Association award was probably the highest honor someone in his line of work could receive, short of “being nominated to be president of the United States.”

“It was a very big deal,” he said. “I felt very humbled to be in such an elite group, where they all receive national recognition for their accomplishments.”

Columbia officials agree Wieman’s achievements deserved to be recognized.

“Richard was on the cutting edge of hazardous waste collection and landfill design, and that’s part of why he won the award,” City Manager Bill Watkins said at a September meeting of the City Council at which Wieman was honored.

Also at that meeting, First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz said Wieman’s management of the division has benefited Columbia.

“It seems like a very forward-thinking department that’s going to help the city in the long term,” Sturtz said.

Future route

The division has several projects planned for the next few years. Wieman said tests on the bioreactor are nearly done, and results of the recycling bin pilot program will be presented to the council next February so that officials can determine the program’s next steps.

As for Wieman’s next step, he said he intends to retire sometime during the summer of 2012. He and his wife have a lot on their bucket list still to accomplish, including spending time with family, traveling and, of course, more recycled artwork.

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