COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
In its first full year of operation, Columbia's "Pay-As-You-Throw" garbage system has brought down the amount of residential trash collected in the city. However, it's missed the mark when it comes to staffing and resident satisfaction.
When the new system was approved in September 2020, its main goals were to help recruit and retain collection personnel and limit the size and number of items thrown on the curb.
The new system hasn't fixed the city's ongoing staffing struggle, though. The Solid Waste Department still has 15 vacancies among 28 positions on the collections crew, according to Matt Nestor, the public information officer for Columbia's Utilities Department.
"We're still in the same boat, we still have a number of positions open," Nestor said. "Recently, we proposed and the City Council approved a new job classification, where we can have people picking up stuff curbside without needing the commercial driver's license. So we're expecting that will help us out in the long run as well."
By changing large item collection and requiring residents to schedule pick-ups, Nestor said the "Pay-As-You-Throw" system has helped greatly with the second goal.
"We needed to make it so that when the workers came around the corner, they knew what to expect," Nestor said. "And when you're doing this, the bags hold 50 pounds each. When you're doing it 50 pounds at a time, it's a lot less stress on the workers."
A lot less stress and a lot fewer injuries. In fiscal 2021, data obtained through a records request with the city showed there were only eight workers' compensation claims filed -- the smallest number in a decade.
The city also predicted two other benefits: reducing curbside refuse by approximately 6,000 tons annually and increasing recyclable material by approximately 2,000 tons annually.
According to Solid Waste data, the amount of residential trash collected in Columbia decreased by slightly more than 7,752 tons from the year before. The amount of residential and drop-off recycling increased by about 1,323 tons.
Though the "Pay-As-You-Throw" system is more environmentally friendly, it's yielded a large number of complaints from Columbians.
A city spokeswoman told ABC 17 News there had been 4,074 inquiries about trash bags as of Feb. 22. However, officials were unable to say what number of the inquiries were complaints.
Through a records request, ABC 17 News obtained more than 200 individual citizen complaints regarding the "Pay-As-You-Throw" system. Many customers complained of weak and defective bags, the lack of availability of city-logo bags in local grocery stores, the cost of the bags and an increase in illegal dumping due to the system.
When asked how the city balances public opinion with what works for the government itself, Nestor said officials listen to complaints and take all feedback seriously.
"It's just a process and taking it step by step," Nestor said. "Anybody who expected this to work 100% perfectly the first time through, you know, wasn't being logical. There's going to be issues, there's going to be problems that we have to deal with and we just take it one day at a time."
Read some of the 200+ complaints below.
"All four dumpsters have been overflowing with trash multiple times since the city has implemented the new trash services. Basically, my tenants are paying for everyone in the surrounding neighborhoods to use our dumpsters."Employee at Wynwood Townhomes, February 2021
"Customer has five children and has already gone through all of her vouchers. All of her children are in home school because of COVID and her trash is piling up. She cannot afford to pay $2 per bag. Trash is building up in her backyard and attracting mice."Call notes from City of Columbia employee, March 2021
"Where can I get more trash bags provided by you? We have been going from store to store with employees telling us that they ran out. We even looked in the trash bag aisle shelves to make sure. This is frustrating.Columbia resident, April 2021
"Good morning. Since the trash bags and recyclying bags are required by the city, can you at least get bags that are not utter and absolute complete junk? Example -- recycling bag has two Coke cans and a Gatorade bottle and yet again the white strings have broken and ripped out. If you require this for trash and recycling to get picked up, please do better."Columbia resident, February 2022
Shonda White lives with her three children in Columbia and echoed citizens' complaints.
"Before this happened, I could spend $10 and have a big, large amount of bags to cover me for the month, but we're only getting five bags," White said. "So I'm going every week spending $10 for five bags just for that week."
White said she's seen litter throughout Columbia since the new program took effect.
"That's why you have trash being dumped illegally everywhere, including on the interstate, and a lot of other places. It's because people don't have the money to keep running out and buying bags, especially five for $10," White said.
White is part of a group pushing for roll carts in Columbia. However, in March 2016, 53.81% of Columbians voted to ban roll carts in the city ordinance.