The debate over how to best handle trash collection in Columbia has been going on for years, since the city’s Public Works Department’s Solid Waste Division first broached the idea of using roll carts in a 2011 survey of city residents.
More than half the 2,000 respondents to that survey said they favored a switch to a roll cart system of trash collection, which would allow the city to use automated trucks.
As the city moved in the direction of roll carts over the next few years, however, an energized group of opponents began collecting signatures on an initiative petition to force a vote on whether to ban them. In March 2016, a ballot issue placing a six-month ban on any discussion of roll carts and establishing ordinances to prohibit them passed with 54% of the vote.
Fast forward to 2020. As workers’ compensation claims and staff shortages continued to dog the solid waste utility, Columbia MO Citizens for Roll Carts formed and began collecting signatures to force another vote, this time on a measure that would allow the city to convert to a roll cart system. The group came up short in its effort to collect enough signatures on the April ballot but is continuing the petition drive.
During its budget deliberations in August and September, the Columbia City Council considered placing a measure on the November ballot but ultimately decided against it. Instead, the city switched to a “pay-as-you-throw” system Feb. 1 that requires households to use black bags with city logos on them. Those that use more than 104 bags in a year must buy extras for $2 apiece.
That system also has been widely criticized and has driven a rise in illegal dumping of trash in private dumpsters and at city recycling drop-off points. During the recent campaign for two seats on the Columbia City Council, three candidates called on the city to outsource trash collection to private contractors.
To shed some light on the ongoing debate, the Missourian took a look at how four Missouri cities with populations somewhat similar to Columbia’s population of about 121,000 handle collection. The bumper sticker: All four use private contractors to collect trash, but their systems and monthly billing rates vary.
St. Charles, population 70,171
St. Charles has a contract with a single trash hauling company, Republic Services.
“There are significant cost savings associated with contracting out this service,” said Don Stolberg, a management analyst for the city of St. Charles. “The residents are generally satisfied. We get a few complaints here and there, but our contracted service provider is very responsive to resident concerns.”
A St. Charles ordinance requires households to use roll carts, and residents can choose a 48-, 65- or 96-gallon cart. Monthly rates range from $12.49 to $17.32, depending on the size of the cart.
Residents can have two scheduled bulky items picked up free of charge each week. A November change in Columbia requires that households schedule pickups of bulky items. Each household gets one bulky item picked up for free. Beyond that, the first bulky item during any single pickup costs $21.50 and additional items cost $5 each.
Republic Services offers St. Charles residents weekly yard waste collection for an additional $10.66 a month. There is one day a year in April when yard waste collection is offered for free.
Sarah Huffman moved to St. Charles from Columbia in 2018. She likes how St. Charles handles trash.
“Columbia is pretty great, but St. Charles definitely has you beat on these fantastic trash carts,” Huffman said. “It is way easier to roll a cart ... to the curb the night before pickup than have to lug each heavy trash bag to the curb, then hope no dogs or trash pandas get into it because the trash guys won’t pick it up if it’s strewn all over your yard.”
Huffman also likes the fact that she can place trash at the curb earlier in St. Charles. Columbia residents are prohibited from setting out trash before 4 p.m. the day before it will be collected.
“If you’ll be out of town for trash day (in St. Charles), you don’t get fined for taking carts to the curb early,” Huffman said.
Independence, population 117,084
Independence does not provide trash services for residents. Instead, residents choose from among eight private licensed trash hauling companies.
There were previously two recycling centers in Independence, but both have closed. Residents must go through their chosen trash hauler for recycling. Columbia collects recyclables from households every other week.
Monthly rates for trash collection vary widely from $18 to $42. Most companies provide customers with a 96-gallon roll cart. The Independence city code specifies that receptacles provided to customers by trash companies must have covers and be convenient for carrying.
Independence has quarterly “drop-off depot” events that allow residents to pay a fee to drop off bulky items, tree limbs, appliances, lawn mowers and batteries.
Independence spokesperson Meg Lewis said keeping up the city’s appearance is a goal of the Independence strategic plan.
“Some of the ways we have addressed that are city-wide clean ups, the drop-off depot and ongoing conversations with the residents about what we can do in the neighborhoods,” Lewis said.
St. Joseph, population 75,913
St. Joseph does not provide regular trash services to residents. The average curbside trash collection monthly rate in St. Joseph is $20, and most private companies provide 96-gallon roll carts. The St. Joseph city code, however, does not specify how trash must be contained.
In 2004, the City Council considered dividing the city into sections and seeking bids from private contractors to serve each area, said Rod McQuerrey, St. Joseph’s superintendent of solid waste and recycling. That idea was blocked by a public vote.
McQuerrey said residents are fairly satisfied with the services available to them.
The city has a program called Clean Sweep that allows residents to drop off trash, yard waste and appliances at the city landfill two days of the year for free.
Springfield, population 167,051
Springfield has a free-market trash collection system with more than 10 private companies for residents to choose from. Most give customers a 96-gallon cart. More are available for an extra fee.
The city in 2017 hired a consulting firm to measure the efficiency of its system and explore options. It found that Springfield residents pay $10 to $16 monthly for trash pickup, but these rates often do not include bulky item collection, recycling services or yard waste collection.
The study found that residents of Missouri cities that provide trash collection pay between $10 and $18 monthly but get more services.
One downside to Springfield’s free-market system, the study said, is wear and tear on city’s streets, along with increased noise and traffic because the trash companies don’t operate on the same schedule.
Springfield has three sites where residents can drop off recycling.