The Parkway School District estimates that last year it saved 1,304 tons of trash from a landfill, or the equivalent of taking 244 cars off the road. The environmental achievement was enough to earn Parkway an award for going green, one of many regional and national honors the district has won over the past five years.
Residents of the leafy Green Trails subdivision behind Parkway Central High School are not impressed. The price for the good public relations, they grouse, is disturbed sleep, vibrating homes and decreased property values — thanks to the seemingly endless clanking of metal, whining trash compactors and buzzing Jaws of Life.
Says Don Evashenko, former executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association: "It's an industrial complex that's moved into our back yards."
What began as a Styrofoam-collection effort by Parkway students nearly twenty years ago has morphed into a stand-alone "materials recovery facility" located on the high school campus. The recycling center and its three employees process everything they retrieve, almost on a daily basis, from the district's 33 buildings.
Cans, plastic and cardboard are crushed in giant compactors, then baled and sold at commodity prices. The facility also smashes and strips myriad metals from outdated school equipment, taking care to salvage the valuable ferrous varieties like iron and steel.
"There's so much activity it's indescribable," exclaimed resident Scott Clayman as he narrated a slideshow and video at a Chesterfield City Council meeting earlier this month. Clayman and others have taken more than 900 photographs to make their case that the operation should be moved. "It's obviously not meant to be in the city of Chesterfield, but in a properly zoned area."
Elected officials are now being asked to sift through the mess. "There's been a lack of constructive dialogue between Parkway's administrators and residents," observes Matt Segal, a Chesterfield councilman — and Parkway graduate — who represents the affected area. "Legally, there's not much that we can do. Ethically, morally, however, the city needs to assist the residents to do all we can to encourage Parkway to change the operation."
Recycling is nothing new in the region's classrooms. According to Rebecca Shelby, spokeswoman for the St. Louis-based Solid Waste Management District, most local schools have been reclaiming paper and cans for at least a decade. In the last two years, some districts have ramped up their efforts and now contract with local companies for "single-stream" recycling. Under that model, everything from vending-machine cans to cardboard boxes from the cafeteria kitchen goes into a single bin and is hauled off, for a fee.
Several districts swear by the results. The Maplewood Richmond Heights School District started single-stream recovery in its three buildings two years ago and is now realizing a cost-savings of nearly $500 a month in trash hauling. The Rockwood School District is saving $1,000 a month in trash bills using a similar program operating among its 30 buildings. "That wasn't the point, really, but it's been a nice effect," says Mike Szydlowski, the district's science curriculum coordinator.
Parkway is in a class of its own. "I've been talking to a lot of schools, but I don't think anybody can touch Parkway," observes Cindy Bambini, an Ameren executive who sits on the Green Schools committee of the U.S. Green Building Council-St. Louis.
Bill Guinther, former manager of Parkway's recycling center, says he introduced the metals aspect of the operation in 2000. "[It was driven by] personal values, not wanting to see things that could be recovered go to landfills." Guinther says he soon realized he had a moneymaker on his hands. Take, for example, the copper cabling that came out of a school's antiquated air-conditioning system: "We recovered it, cut it into three-foot lengths, stripped the insulation off of it and sold it on the market for $7,000. There's no reason for a district to give up something like that to a contractor or to let it go into a landfill."
The revenue stream continues. According to Guinther's successor, Erik Lueders, the program last year turned a profit of nearly $6,000.
The losses in goodwill, though, are harder to quantify. "Have we made some mistakes? Yes," concedes Parkway district spokesman Paul Tandy. "We should've thought a little more about what the impact was going to be on our neighbors."
Residents of Green Trails say the problems began back in 2002 when the district cut down trees that formed a natural buffer between the campus and the neighborhood in order to access a water-main break. The district proceeded to use wood chippers to mulch the trees. Neighbors say the racket droned on for hours.
Fewer trees made for a perfect storm: Residents say bus exhaust filled their back yards, and early-morning vibrations rattled their kitchen countertops. Some compare the sound of crashing metal to cannon fire and thunder. "It's very inconsistent," says Rachel Eilbott, a retired teacher. "One minute it's peaceful, the next minute it sounds like they're tearing a house down."
The tension ratcheted up earlier this year when residents found what they say was 942 feet of garbage — soda bottles, bags of Cheetos, batteries, broken glass, paper and plastic — that the district had allowed to accumulate in the woods. In March, citizens exposed the eyesore with a slideshow at a board of education meeting hoping to shame Parkway into launching a cleanup.
"For years we'd let that area deteriorate," admits Tandy. "They were absolutely right about that."
The residents began scrutinizing the property and became alarmed at the sight of discarded light fixtures, electronics and containers marked "asbestos" and "acid." Worried about contaminants such as mercury and PCBs washing off into the nearby creek, they made complaints to the Department of Natural Resources and the St. Louis County Department of Health. Each agency inspected Parkway's campus plant and failed to find anything amiss. The county further determined that the facility doesn't need to be licensed or regulated.
Councilman Barry Flachsbart is not convinced: "There are conflicting legal opinions about whether or not they need a permit."
Still, nobody disagrees that it is a loud and dirty business. "[It's the] nature of the beast," reasons Lueders, who manages the site.
"It's one of these things people don't like in their back yard, and I can't say that I blame them," says Tandy.
Green Trails' residents are now demanding the facility be relocated to an industrial area. Councilman Segal says he and Flachsbart, along with state and county officials, are drafting a letter to Parkway School District urging it to move the plant.
"I think it's important to encourage students to recycle, and you have to start at a young age," notes Segal. "We can have a win-win where Parkway is a leader in recycling, but does it in a responsible way."