St. Paul residents ask: Is this any way to collect garbage?

A garbage bin in St. Paul.
Many residents say there are too many garbage trucks rumbling along streets and alleys. But trash haulers fear losing business.
Jon Gordon | MPR News

The St. Paul City Council is considering a plan to overhaul trash collection in the city. Under an arrangement in place for decades, 14 different companies compete to provide service.

Many residents say this approach results in too many garbage trucks rumbling along streets and alleys. But trash haulers fear losing business, and say they can make improvements without a major intervention by city hall.

About 2,000 people responded to a non-scientific survey the public works department conducted in March — the most feedback the city's Open Saint Paul website has ever gotten. At a City Council meeting Wednesday night, the comments kept coming.

Steve Yetter lives in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood near the University of Minnesota. He calls the city's method of trash collection disorganized and a failure. Yetter said some people don't want to pay for a hauler and resort to illegal dumping in places such as the Kasota Ponds Wildlife Area.

"At this year's cleanup on Saturday, April 16, volunteers pulled from one pond alone over 40 bags of miscellaneous garbage, 30 car tires, six metal box springs and five water softeners," Yetter said. "If you went there today and saw the garbage that has been dumped in just the last six weeks since the last cleanup, you would never guess that it had recently been cleaned up."

Yetter said uniform trash pickup is a matter of social equity and should be provided to all residents as water and sewer services are.

The proposed overhaul is still in its early stages. But it could involve dividing the city into zones or routes and assigning a single collector to each.

Sixty-seven-year-old Steve Ford — a 40-year-resident of the Summit-University neighborhood — told City Council members one truck a week is enough.

"Do you know what it's like to have seven different trash haulers up and down your alley every day? And it gets worse when you retire because you're around all day gardening."

In the hopes of reducing traffic, Ford says he tried unsuccessfully to get his neighbors to contract with the same hauler.

Those who spoke in favor of the existing system say organized trash pickup is a solution in search of a problem. One resident said he had no trouble getting his neighbors to sign up with a single garbage company.

But the people most vocal about keeping the existing system are the trash collectors themselves. Four generations of Rona Krupenny's family has been in the business since 1909.

"You're going to take away our livelihood. If this goes through as organized collection we are out of business — my son, his family, my daughter, her family and my husband and myself. It will wipe us out," Krupenny said.

Even if organized trash hauling gives each hauler a guaranteed slice of business in the city, operators fear their portions will be too small to provide sustainable income.

Matt Pflugi, owner of East Metro Environmental, serves about 1,800 customers in St. Paul. Pflugi hopes to set up a co-op with other independent haulers to establish separate routes based on each company's market share. He said that'll reduce truck traffic with minimal involvement from city hall.

"We can work together to come up with a solution that isn't a complete organized collection system but does address all of the concerns that the citizens of St. Paul have," Pflugi said.

Council President Russ Stark said he's open to that.

"[We] really appreciate the independent haulers coming up with the idea of a co-op, at least trying to meet us halfway. We really appreciate that you're already talking and thinking about some of these options."

The council did not take action on the plan Wednesday night.

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