Complaints over trash service revive garbage hauler issue in St. Paul

Not so long ago, St. Paul customers who were unhappy with their garbage hauler could fire the company and sign up with a competitor. But not since residents voted to forgo their freedom of choice for a so-called organized collection system that limits the number of haulers in the city and lets bureaucrats decide which company picks up their trash.

As a result, hundreds of St. Paul households experiencing delays in service have had little recourse but to complain to city hall, going back to November in some cases. But judging from the Pioneer Press account, not much has changed.

In no uncertain terms, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and the city attorney’s office have informed Waste Management that the company’s residential trash and subscription yard waste services have failed to live up to expectations for months.

Garbage bags have gone uncollected with bins overflowing while fines piling up for hundreds of missed pick-ups.

Problems appear to have proliferated in November, but repeated attempts to get the city’s primary residential trash hauler to make up for failed collections have been unsuccessful, according to the mayor.

Some 3,000 complaints have been logged already this month, prompting more tough talk from Carter, $81,200 in fines and a demand for customer rebates. Waste Management blames the problems on a shortage of drivers.

“There currently is a high demand for (commercial driver’s-licensed) drivers throughout the trucking industry due to a variety of factors including the rapid expansion of home delivery services, an aging driver population and a deficit of new CDL drivers, causing a high demand for CDL drivers in an era of diminishing CDL workforce,” reads the statement from Waste Management.

The city’s contract under organized collection requires another hauler in the consortium to step up in case of a problem. Yet after months of complaints and time to find a solution, city hall has failed to produce results. The fiasco puts a renewed spotlight on organized collection and the struggling system’s supporters.

When the city signed a five-year contract with the trash hauling consortium in 2017, there were 15 haulers on board, but mergers, acquisitions and industry departures have whittled the number down to five.  

That’s left Waste Management especially top-heavy with St. Paul accounts, totaling some 56 percent of the one-to-four unit residences in the city. The company completed its $4.6 billion national acquisition of Advanced Disposal in October 2020.

Carter said he believes the consortium is working on a back-up plan to absorb different portions of under-serviced routes, but “my frustration is that based on the contract language, that contingency plan should have been in place already, and active over the last six months.”

The controversy comes as the current contract with trash haulers enters its last year. The Star Tribune points out that city hall’s failure to deliver just may have opened the door to critics of organized collection all over again.

It’s not the first time trash has been a hot topic in St. Paul. The city’s current contract, which took effect in October 2018, replaced a decades-old system that left individual property owners arranging their own method of waste disposal.

Officials said the new system was supposed to scale back truck traffic, pollution and wear-and-tear on streets, while also standardizing rates. But opponents — who said the new system does nothing to disincentivize waste and ended long relationships with local haulers — got the issue on the ballot in 2019.

Those in favor of organized trash collection won with nearly two-thirds of the vote, but the issue has remained a subject of controversy among residents.