Missouri Senate to debate cutting funds for recycling program

The state budget that the Missouri Senate is considering would chop funding for a statewide recycling grant program, a move that recycling advocates call shortsighted.

At issue is a program funded by a fee trash haulers pay when they dispose of solid waste in landfills or take it to transfer stations where it is consolidated for shipment to a landfill.

Money from the fee is distributed to 20 regional solid waste districts around the state. District officials then award grants to businesses and groups to increase recycling options and promote public awareness of recycling.

Supporters say the program has been successful at diverting waste from landfills. But the program has drawn fire from Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, for what he considers exorbitant overhead costs.

“It’s a tremendous waste of money,” Schaefer, an environmental lawyer, said in an interview earlier this year.

Information provided by his office indicates that some of the waste management districts used half of their funds for administrative costs last year. The highest percentage spent on overhead was 54 percent, in Region D in northwestern Missouri.

“When you bring this to peoples’ attention, they think it’s ludicrous,” Schaefer said.

But not all districts spent such a high percentage on administration. The St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District, which covers St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County, spent 23.6 percent on overhead, according to Schaefer’s data.

The St. Louis-Jefferson district approved more than $2.1 million in funding for 60 grant recipients last year, according to John Haasis, manager of the solid waste management program at the St. Louis County Department of Health.

Haasis sent an email to senators today, asking them to reinstate the program’s funding. A handout he distributed said that over the years, the outlay has funded options such as curbside recycling, yard waste composting sites, special collections for electronics and hundreds of thousands of recycling containers.

Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, said he supported restoring the money.

“It’s kind of ironic that we’re having this discussion on Earth Day,” Keaveny said. “I’ve heard a number of times from businesses how much they utilize this program and how much it benefits the environment.”

In addition to the proposed budget cut, Schaefer sponsors a separate bill that would eliminate the solid waste districts, lower the haulers’ tipping fee and let the Missouri Department of Natural Resources administer the grants.

He said the “world of solid waste is not what it was in 1990,” when the districts were established. Given the high cost of land for landfills and the growing market for recycling, he said haulers had an economic incentive to reduce what they take to landfills.

But his bill eliminating the districts has been stuck on the Senate’s debate calendar for months, and with only four weeks left in the session, it is probably dead.

At a hearing in January, critics said it would eliminate local control and harm efforts to educate people about the benefits of recycling. They said Missouri’s recycling industry employs more than 25,000 people.

“If some districts are not operating efficiently, then certain limits on administrative costs might solve the problem,” said a letter submitted by Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League.

Keaveny voiced a similar position. “The St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste District does a very, very good job. I can’t speak to all the others but I’m not sure we need to take the nuclear action and eliminate them all.”

The solid waste districts’ funding is part of HB6. Schaefer’s bill eliminating the districts is SB13.