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For years, St. Paul took a hands-off approach to trash collection. Now, the city might start buying garbage trucks

The city council’s vote this week highlights just how much St. Paul has changed on this issue in a short amount of time.

Garbage truck in St. Paul alley
City officials are considering hiring crews and buying trucks to collect trash in some neighborhoods.
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson

It wasn’t all that long ago that the city of St. Paul took a hands-off approach to garbage collection, leaving residents responsible for arranging their own trash pickup.

Now, St. Paul might get into the garbage business itself.

City officials are considering hiring crews and buying trucks to collect trash in some neighborhoods, which could add a municipal provider to the current mix of five private garbage haulers who handle all pickups in St. Paul. The city’s contract with that consortium of companies expires in October.

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On Wednesday, St. Paul City Council members voted to explore including a “municipal collection option” in its next garbage collection contract — though a top city official told MinnPost that staff and consultants are already studying the idea “very, very seriously.”

Trust us: Trash in St. Paul is a big deal!

This development is noteworthy on two levels.

For one thing, a “municipal collection option” could be a new way for the city to exert pressure on the garbage-hauling companies after a frustrating few months: Over the summer, hundreds of residents complained that their city-contracted hauler failed to empty their bins, and city officials fined the garbage companies (again) over additional missed pickups in December and January.

“It is not reasonable for our residents to be denied service. Having a municipal option helps,” said Susan Young, who oversees waste collection for the city’s Department of Public Works.

Waste Management, the largest of the five haulers in St. Paul’s consortium, blamed the missed recent pickups on winter road conditions, in a statement from spokesperson Julie Ketchum: “Streets and alleyways were not maintained in a timely manner during the worst snowstorms we have had this winter.”

On a broader level, garbage has been a source of controversy in St. Paul for years — and this latest development highlights just how much St. Paul has changed on this issue in a relatively short amount of time.

As our columnist Bill Lindeke put it in 2015, Minneapolis’ “ruthless coordination” of trash pickup stood in contrast to “St. Paul’s stubborn lack of the same.” In 2018, the capital city began organizing garbage pickup, ending a system that left individual residents to hire their own garbage hauler and negotiate their own pickup rates. The next year, St. Paul voters approved a referendum to continue the new centralized system.

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A mere five years or so after the start of this saga, it’s possible St. Paul could be handling garbage pickup a lot like Minneapolis does: with a mix of municipal employees and private contractors.

If the city’s plan moves forward, Young said municipal trucks would collect trash in a relatively small portion of the city at first — “a maximum of 10%,” though that might grow over time — while private haulers would handle the rest.

“If St. Paul were to go away from their current system of a private consortium of haulers and start collecting with city trucks, that would be a pretty big change to their system,” said Peder Sandhei, who’s been a solid waste planner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for 16 years.

Why Minnesota is ‘a little strange’ when it comes to trash pickup

For years, St. Paul’s “open collection” system — a term for residents being responsible for garbage pickup — made the city an outlier among other big urban centers in the U.S.

“The majority of cities in the United States are either collected by municipal workers driving municipal trucks,” said David Biderman, president and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, “or there is organized collection of some sort,” with the city hiring one or more private haulers for the job.

Organizing trash collection is efficient, Biderman said: “You would rather have one truck going down the street than four different companies’ trucks going down the streets,” cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing wear and tear on roadbeds. This was one reason St. Paul opted for organized trash collection, with different contractors serving different parts of the city.

A 2009 MPCA study also found that residents tend to pay less for trash pickup under organized systems — though Biderman suggested this isn’t always the case nationally.

In 2015, one survey found St. Paul residents paid an average of $27 per month, though city officials argue that under this old system, costs varied widely, even between neighbors using the same hauler. Under the current system, base fees range between $20 and $38 per month, depending on bin size and pickup frequency.

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While St. Paul’s old system might have differed from those in most other big cities — Chicago, Baltimore or Philadelphia, to name a few — it wasn’t so unusual for the Twin Cities metro.

“Minnesota is a little strange,” Sandhei said, “in that we have fewer communities that are organized than other states.”

As of 2018, just under half of the cities in both Ramsey and Hennepin counties — and fewer than one-third of the municipalities in Anoka, Carver and Washington counties — had organized their garbage collection. Vast majorities of the residents in Dakota and Scott counties live in a community with an open collection system.

Proponents of “open collection” garbage systems — in which residents are responsible — hold that competition “forces companies to compete on price and service,” said Biderman. (His group doesn’t take a position on whether open or organized systems are better.)

For the hauler, “profit margins are probably higher in un-organized communities,” Sandhei said — and when communities organize, it’s generally hardest on mom-and-pop haulers, who may not be able to compete with larger providers for a share of the city’s contract.  (The MPCA is also neutral on the open-vs.-organized question.)

St. Paul’s next steps — and what they could mean for garbage collection

St. Paul’s current consortium of garbage haulers — Waste Management, Republic Services, Aspen Waste Systems, Gene’s Disposal Service and Highland Sanitation — had hoped to renew and renegotiate their current deal with the city.

Instead, St. Paul City Council members on Wednesday approved a plan to open the garbage contract to new bids as part of a vote to endorse a lengthy outline of changes they hope to include in the city’s next garbage contract.

Their outline contains a host of changes big and small. During this week’s council meeting and a study session earlier this month, council members and city staff debated proposed tweaks to the bulky item pickup program (6 items allowed per year, instead of 2 or 3) and how to handle residents’ requests to opt out of collection (city staff doesn’t want to make it too easy).

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The city’s proposal to explore a city-run trash pickup service — or for the city to assume control of more aspects of garbage pickup, including customer service and cart management — drew less internal debate. However, the idea has raised eyebrows among the current haulers, who see a risk to their bottom line.

“Municipal, or government provided collection, would impact all private sector collectors. In essence, the city would be taking over portions of all hauler’s business,” Ketchum said in a statement, “We hope the city carefully considers what it would cost now and into the future to institute government collection” and how the change might impact what residents pay.

City waste director Young believes St. Paul could sustain its municipal pickup service with revenues from regular garbage fees, and without ongoing help from the city’s general fund. Young said St. Paul has already brought in consultants to study how to cover start-up costs.

Despite concerns over missed service this summer and winter, Young said the city hoped the current consortium will submit a bid — and that the city didn’t mean the move to bid out the contract as a slight.

“We are required to competitively bid large contracts, and this is a very large contract,” Young said. “They and their folks have understood from the beginning that with large contracts, we need to be responsive and make sure our residents understand we’re not just taking any deal — that we’re making a competitive process.”