Recycling Household Hazardous Waste
How St. Charles County, MO, improved services by expanding recycling opportunities to include HHW
Local efforts for recycling picked up steam when St. Charles County, MO, committed to an expansion of Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection from residents. A suburb within the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, St. Charles County is Missouri’s third-largest county in population with more than 380,000 residents, and is the state’s fastest-growing county with a projected population of nearly 500,000 by 2030. The median household income is approximately $72,000 per year and covers more than 500 square miles. It is bordered by the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
The County operates two recycling centers. The facilities are unique in that, unlike other government-owned recycling centers, these centers are staffed and managed by the County, as opposed to contracted out. The centers collect a wide range of recyclables such as electronics, polystyrene foam, appliances, glass, plastic, paper, and cardboard. Since 2005, one center, Recycle Works Central, has accepted HHW, while the other center, Recycle Works West, did not.
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As curbside recycling in the community became more widespread, the County’s two staffed recycling centers started seeing decreased tonnage, that is, with the exception of HHW. It became apparent that this service was a desirable one. County staff was faced with a tough decision—either stay with just one HHW collection facility or expand capacity. On the one hand, it’s important to remain relevant and provide the services residents’ demand, but on the other hand, new programs, especially hazardous waste collections, are expensive to build from the ground-up. It was determined the County would need to seek potential grant funding if the project was to have any hope of finding traction.
In mid-2015, grant contracts were signed, and a new hazardous waste bunker for the Recycle Works West facility was purchased for roughly $60,000.
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The Road Getting There
It was not easy beginning a new program, even one which so clearly was needed. The program certainly experienced opposition along the way. Both citizens and staff expressed concern of hazardous leaks, explosions, traffic flow, cost, etc.
This is where carefully crafted and consistent messaging played a big part. Enthusiasm for the project had to be maintained and shared with others. Both staff and partners played a hand in keeping the project moving forward. Even internally, questions and fears had to be answered. Ultimately, it was a success, but one which is not yet complete.
A Work in Progress
At the start of this program, a common concern was that the recycling center staff would not be equipped with the training, equipment, and tools necessary to safely segregate and manage chemicals. So, that year (2015), the County purchased what items it could and updated the Spill Prevention Control & Countermeasure Plan (SPCC) to address that concern. In early 2016, before the program was kicked off, additional training for staff was held regarding how to handle the material. Having the HHW program successfully operating at the Recycle Works Central facility was a great advantage. The new HHW program at Recycle Works West modeled much of the existing HHW program from Recycle Works Central.
Currently, the County is using another grant to purchase additional equipment needed to support the operation, such as shelving, aerosol puncturing equipment, spill control drums, drum pallet racks, waste oil tank, flammable cabinets, paint can crusher, and hazmat rated cubic yard boxes. Without a funding source such as the grant, trying to implement the expanded HHW program would have been very difficult.
In 1990, the State of Missouri created Solid Waste Management Districts. Each district would receive money to distribute to grantees within the District. The pot of money was created by the collection of $1.50 per ton from the operators of sanitary and demolition landfills. Additionally, transfer stations that transport their waste outside Missouri also are subject to pay the fee. The fee did allow for annual consumer price index adjustments, which have since been frozen from 2005 to 2027. Today, the fee is a little over $2 per ton.
St. Charles County is located in the state’s largest district, the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District. Annually, they receive approximately $1.8 million to distribute in grants. The most recent grant request received more than $5 million in grantees’ requests, so a strong application and solid track record makes the difference between an awarded grant and a missed opportunity.
Another improvement recently made to the Recycle Works West center is a paved drop-off area. Previously, residents had to walk on gravel. Besides the obvious ADA issues, the dust was horrendous for staff, and it created a swamp-like mess when it rained. The County is looking into other ways to improve services, such as purchasing equipment to process and sell polystyrene foam, a commodity not accepted in local curbside recycling.
Recently, the recycling centers celebrated 25-plus years of service. Being a part of the growth St. Charles County is experiencing is a humbling opportunity. The County offers a rich environment for change. The solid waste management program staff was fortunate to be able to capitalize on this growth and move forward.
Change and Process Improvement
Often, being an effective change-maker means listening more than talking. Typically, people are not necessarily resistant to change, just negative consequences. Throughout the new program implementation, it was critical to communicate with staff and address their needs, concerns, and wants. The County still has a lot of work to do, but the program is off to a great start.
Message to Managers
When considering a new venture, do not wait until all answers are known. It is impossible to know it all. Under close supervision, the County was willing to take that leap of faith. Some things might go a little haywire, but adjustments can be made along the way. When St. Charles County purchased the hazardous waste bunker, the recycling center barely had enough vermiculite in stock to clean up a spill of one quart of oil. Yes, prepare, manage, and seek out those best management practices or standard operating procedures (SOPs), but do not become so consumed and discouraged that great ideas never makes it off paper. Turn it into a reality, and watch your customers or residents enjoy the fruits of your labor for decades to come.
The field of solid waste management demands several factors to be successful. Among the most critical factors includes, flexibility, confidence in oneself and staff, and thinking on your feet. Without each of these qualities, it may become easy to give up and not move forward. If not innate, these traits must be conditioned in the manager. Repetition and time can aide that conditioning. Experience must not be underestimated, as career lessons help mold those factors for success.
County staff has come to appreciate the autonomy of their positions when left to make decisions under a guided vision and set of goals. Certainly, if possible, some changes would have been made to the implementation process of the Household Hazardous Waste program, but the end product and quality of service has still been achieved and praised by residents. The lessons learned are invaluable, and not worth trading for anything.