Can recycling take the next step toward production here?
The future of recycling in this area is tied to a somewhat controversial decision made six years ago. Once St. Louis County made it mandatory for haulers to offer curbside residential recycling in 2006, single stream recycling in the region spiked. In 2007, the amount of waste recycled jumped to 530,000 tons. By 2010, the most recent year with reliable county-wide totals, residents recycled more than 640,000 tons, roughly one-third of total waste generated.
Gary Gilliam, sales manager for Resource Management, a St. Louis County recycling processing facility, said the plant he oversees in Earth City processes roughly 400 tons of material a day, five days a week and sometimes six. Most of that, 73 percent, is paper.
Gilliam could not discuss specific numbers, but at 400 tons a day and with commodity prices across the board at near record highs, it is not difficult to see that profits are in the black and rising. New technology on the hauling side of the business has made pick-up more efficient and significantly cheaper, as well.
As recycling numbers and profits have risen, processors like Resource Management and Republic want more, picking up where government started in promoting recycling more than a decade ago.
"Four hundred tons 10 years ago was a dream," Gilliam said. "It's not a dream anymore."
More recycling, fewer fees
Most single-family homes in the area may now have curbside recycling and the city has Dumpsters where alleys make then possible, but there is still a great deal of room for growth, Gilliam said. Most county apartment buildings still do not have single-stream recycling for residents. By Gilliam's estimate, that is 300,000 units without recycling. Counties do not mandate that businesses recycle, and many don't.
Local governments remain very active in recycling efforts, and most regulate commercial haulers and landfills operating within their jurisdiction, but much of the thrust for new recycling now comes from private industry.
As industry's pro-recycling message catches on, the effort to lessen waste has become something of a Catch-22 for government backers. The more material that is diverted from landfills to recyclers, the less governments collect in fees. The Solid Waste Management District (SWMD), which serves St. Louis and St. Louis, Jefferson and St. Charles counties, has seen its funding steadily decline over the past few years, director Dave Berger said. As a result, it has become more targeted when it comes to grant money that goes to projects promoting recycling and repurposing.
"We get a lot more proposals that we can possibly help," Berger said.
The size and scope of grants varies year-to-year, as does the SWMD budget. According to Berger, the district awarded $2 million for 2012, up from $1.8 million a year ago. The agency's best hope in the long term is that the state legislature develops fees or revenue streams to provide funding, he said.
Is government help needed?
In a larger sense, though, the industry is turning over. No longer is it government’s job to push it along, said John Haasis, head of St. Louis County’s solid waste division. It is time for private industry to take the lead.
"The government had to step in to promote recycling initially because it wasn't profitable on a large scale," Haasis said. "The recycling industry has blossomed so much on its own that we don't need to prop it with grant money any more."
What private industry will do with the market remains to be seen. Joseph Martinich, an UMSL business professor who reports on the subject for the SWMD, is bullish about the future of recycling in Missouri. As the volume of averted waste continues to rise, so too will the industry that processes it, he said. What that rise will look like and where it will occur is less certain if not more important.
Most of the growth in the recycling industry in the past five years has occurred in the early stages: collection, processing and brokering. According to Martinich's 2010 report that covered 2005-10, those early parts of the supply chain saw a 20 percent employment increase.
Those are welcome jobs, he said, but they are low-paying and often unskilled. And at the same time that early-stage employment has expanded, the number of downstream, more skilled jobs has contracted.
"We're a huge producer of recycled material, and we have a good infrastructure for collecting it, but it's all being shipped downstream," Martinich said. "All those jobs are being lost."
Can the area attract more jobs?
That does not have to be the case, he said. Once recycled materials have been processed, they are usually exported as commodities to manufacturers elsewhere in the United States or around the world. Missouri could break into that market, Martinich said, keeping its recycled commodities in the state and producing valuable new jobs.
Martinich envisions something like a new green mining industry in Missouri with laid-off manufacturing workers employed in transforming the old into new. All it would take would be timely incentives from the state; and outside manufacturers, particularly plastics processors, would jump on the resources available here, he said.
"There should, on paper, be an economic advantage to locating in St. Louis. And then if you throw on top of that economic development grants, I think we should have a pretty good chance to get those plants here," Martinich said.
He estimates an incentivized investment of $500,000 to $1,000,000 could lead to a plant creating 50 jobs, several of which would be highly skilled.
"It's not the super high paid, auto assembly refinery workers, but they are decent wages. Much better than lower-level service jobs," Martinich said. For the same buck it would take to draw a big box store, you can create new, real jobs.
The problem, Martinich said, is that Missouri has no real strategy to try to lure recycling manufacturers. While state and local government routinely offer incentives to big box stores or auto manufacturers, the funds that could draw plastics companies or paper mills have been nonexistent.
"I don't know that there's ever been a concerted effort among state leaders," said Berger of SWMD. He said it is not surprising the post-resource recovery sector is the last to draw attention. It is less visible and it takes a long time to pool the resources and infrastructure that makes manufacturing more worthwhile.
"The potential is certainly there," Berger said. "We're really just hitting the point in the last few years where we have enough resources diverted to draw in end users."