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Waste of money? City Council ponders future of trash bag vouchers

Bram Sable-Smith
A garbage truck empties its load at the Columbia Sanitary Landfill

Pierre Whitfield’s shift riding on the back of a city garbage truck begins at 7:30 A.M. Over the course of one eight hour shift, Pierre and his partner will make two trips to the landfill to unload between three and five tons of trash.

The garbage sitting outside each home comes in all kinds of bags – black trash bags, white trash bags, dog food bags, grocery bags – and Whitfield says as long as they are bundled and tied,  the choice in bag doesn’t really matter to him.

But the same cannot be said for Cynthia Mitchell, manager of Columbia’s Solid Waste Utility.

“The [trash bags] on the shelf at the store [are] more around one mil," Mitchell said. "Some are .9 mil. Some are 1.1.”

A ‘mil’ is one one-thousandth of an inch and it’s the unit of measure for the thickness of a trash bag. Normally, the city prefers a thicker trash bag, around two mil.

“Unless you get into a really high-grade contractor bag you’re not going to see anything as thick or thicker than ours,” Mitchell said.

But the plastic resin used to make garbage bags is a petroleum product. And as petroleum prices rise, the cost of garbage bags goes up as well. Mitchell said she ordered 1.75 mil trash bags for the city, down from 2.0, and still saw an increase cost of 11% per bag. 

And therein lies the problem.

Unlike city departments funded by the general fund which is comprised mostly of local taxes, the Solid Waste Utility is an enterprise fund. Under city policy, enterprise funds are basically required to generate the revenue to cover their expenditures.

To that end, the Solid Waste Utility receives money from the Water & Light Department for energy generated in its landfill gas to energy plant. It receives grant funding. And, of course, there is the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

The MRF recovers some of its operating costs by selling the recycling it sorts. According to a fact sheet provided by the utility, in January of 2014 recycled cardboard sold for $100 per ton, office paper went for $135 per ton, and aluminum cans could fetch more than $1,700 per ton.

But by the far the biggest source of revenue for the Solid Waste Utility are its fees. Households pay a fee of $15.42 per month, slightly less if you live in an apartment. The utility also has a contract with the University of Missouri, and assess a “tipping fee” per ton of waste disposed in its landfill. All of that ads up to more than $18,000,000 in funding sources in the proposed budget for FY2015.

But the proposed expenditures total closer to $20,000,000. And that's where trash bags come in. 

The utility budgets $380,000 to provide the trash bag vouchers three times a year.  According to Mitchell, eliminating that cost would help reduce the deficit without increasing residential rates.

“One way to keep from raising the residential rate this year was to eliminate that amount of money," Mitchell said. "And $380,000 was the original budgeted number this year, but we have spent over $500,000.”

That didn’t prevent citizens from speaking out at last Tuesday’s city council meeting, however.

Columbia resident Steve Sheltmire delivered two petitions to the council. One to keep the black bag vouchers intact, and one to delay any decisions about garbage collection until an ongoing Cost of Services study on the Solid Waste Utility is completed. At least on the latter point, the council seemed to agree.

“We’re going to have a big cost of service study. We’re going to dig into all the big picture things about this whole utility," Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas told the city council.  "Let’s not add a new cost at this point, but we can save some of that money by maybe reducing it instead of three rolls of 25 [bags per year] to two rolls of 25.”

The Cost of Service report will be presented to the council on October 6.  

And in the meantime, Pierre Whitfield will continue his morning shifts on the garbage truck. “I love my job," he said. "I like what I’m doing. It keeps me healthy and I’m exercising every day so that’s a good thing for me."

A curious Columbia, Mo. native, Bram Sable-Smith has documented mbira musicians in Zimbabwe, mining protests in Chile, and the St. Louis airport's tumultuous relationship with the Chinese cargo business. His reporting from Ferguson, Mo. was part of a KBIA documentary honored by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and winner of a national Edward R. Murrow Award. He comes to KBIA most recently from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.