Jerry Witter moved to St. Louis nearly two decades ago with hopes of becoming an artist. Instead, he settled on becoming the king of recycling a fitting livelihood, considering the sort of fringy creativity he brought with him from his native home of Russellville, Arkansas.
"My work was kind of environmental," recalls Witter. "I made pieces about trash and creeks out of tires, conveyer belts, industrial cast-offs all kinds of radical stuff."
As a fine-arts student at Washington University, Witter noticed that St. Louis, unlike many other large cities, never fully embraced the environmentally noble act of trash recovery. Sure, some residents loaded up bottles and cans and drove them to recycling centers. But why, he wondered, couldn't they set out their recyclables for curbside pickup?
Figuring there might be a demand for such convenience, Witter hung flyers to advertise his services. Soon his phone began to ring.
Charging six dollars a month, Witter made biweekly collections in his beat-up Toyota pickup truck. "People laughed at me, thought I was crazy," he says. "But I believe in recycling."
In early 1997 Witter had 800 clients in St. Louis. By the end of the year, that number increased threefold after he won the contract to administer the city's fledgling curbside-recycling pilot program.
The pilot program, confined to just a handful of city zip codes, was implemented so the St. Louis Refuse Division (part of the city's Department of Streets) could learn how to administer curbside recycling on a small scale. Officials hoped to expand and make it permanent in 1998. That never came to pass.
Now, 36 years after the nation's first Earth Day gave rise to the modern recycling movement, St. Louis is far from earning its green stripes. In fact, as the pilot program enters its tenth year, recycling languishes on the city's back-burner.
In 2005 only 11 percent of the city's 202,000 tons of residential waste was diverted from landfills, the vast majority being yard waste, which is turned into compost and mulch and given to city residents at no cost. Renewing such materials as newspapers, aluminum, glass and plastics represented a paltry 2 percent.
Greener-thinking coastal cities like San Francisco and Seattle have long enjoyed superior salvage operations. But even mid-American burgs like Memphis, Milwaukee and Kansas City recycle significantly more than St. Louis.
In Milwaukee the diversion rate is 25 percent, and in Memphis it's 23 percent, with both figures including yard waste. Kansas City recycles 17 percent of its trash (not including yard waste).
"There's one big reason economics," says Laura Neuman-Howe, deputy director of Earth Share of Missouri, an umbrella organization that represents numerous statewide environmental groups.
"It costs more to take trash to the landfill in California, or the East Coast, or even Milwaukee and Memphis, I suspect. So, they look at alternatives to throwing things away," Neuman-Howe explains. "We have places to take our trash that are out of sight and out of mind and digging a hole in our land is cheap."
St. Louis' trash is hauled in trailer-trucks across the Mississippi River to two ever-burgeoning landfills in East St. Louis and Marissa, Illinois, 40 miles southeast. At the pinnacle of each 200-acre repository, the tower of rubbish rises to 200 feet.
The city's landfill bill is $6 million a year, says Jill Hamilton, recycling manager for St. Louis. "We pay $30 a ton to put trash in the landfill. For recyclables, you get paid $15 a ton."
Hamilton, who's been at the recycling helm for four years, complains she has no budget specifically earmarked for recycling, which represents a minute part of the refuse division's $14 million annual outlay.
The recycling department, with one part-time and two full-time employees, spends about $200,000 a year operating 27 drop-off centers. The city also recycles car batteries, oil, appliances, tires and electronics, but Hamilton says she's not sure how much these efforts cost since her program shares employees and equipment with the larger refuse division, and there's no way to separate expenses.
In any case, Hamilton says, there's a dramatic need for more funding in order to provide curbside pickup for all city residents. The pilot program serves addresses in nine zip codes, or about 3,000 households, each of which pays $45 annually. (City residents who don't live in these areas can pay $100 per year for private service.)
By way of comparison, both Memphis and Milwaukee offer curbside pickup to about 200,000 customers.
All residents of unincorporated St. Louis County have access to curbside recycling, and many of those areas employ state-of-the-art "single stream" systems, which use high-tech magnets and optic-recognition software to separate recyclables. City residents must separate their items by hand.
The fact that St. Louis is still running a pilot program after eight years is amazing, says Joe Truini, long-time reporter for the trash-and-recycling trade magazine, Waste News. "That sounds like a long time for a pilot. Usually, you hear about them lasting for a year."
Although the state subsidizes curbside recycling to the tune of $288,000 a year, Hamilton says more government assistance is needed if St. Louis is to achieve a comprehensive reclamation program. And that, she says, is because people are unwilling to pay more.
"Right now, the economy, the cost of heating and the cost of fuel are stressing people out," she says. "Even though their trash is costing them [through their taxes], they perceive it as free, and nobody blinks an eye at paying more and more."
Hamilton notes that Kirkwood residents in 2004 voted against a curbside recycling program that would have cost about $4 per month. The same year, however, Kansas City began offering curbside recycling service to almost every city resident at a cost of $2.5 million per year. (That amount is generated from the city's 1 percent earnings tax, some private funding and a surcharge to those who discard more than two garbage bags.)
"In the past, in KC, the people that generated the most trash were being subsidized by everyone else," says Dee Ann Gregory, coordinator of the Kansas City recycling program. "Now, it's the reverse. We save a lot of money, and we hope to be a model."
Jerry Witter believes St. Louis ought to find ways to emulate Kansas City's reclamation program. He calls for implementing "a true citywide program where every home could participate and where the city actually paid for the service. That would be a lot cheaper for everybody."