O’Fallon Responds to Global Changes in the Recycling Market

When the Environmental Services team at the City of O’Fallon, Missouri, launched single-stream recycling in 2006, the hope was the City would be able to turn recycling into a break-even proposition. O’Fallon residents jumped on the opportunity, and single-stream recycling helped the City financially and environmentally, with the City’s diversion rates approaching 30 percent. It was a huge success, but global changes brought it to an end.

As the single-stream market in China tightened, essentially closing off the market to single-stream product from the United States, O’Fallon’s local recycling processor announced it was closing on October 31, 2018.

O’Fallon’s Environmental Services leadership went to work trying to find a new solution. Other single-stream options were explored, but the cost was prohibitive. Under the previous program, the City brought in about $5 for every ton of product it collected. Estimates to continue the single-stream program had the City paying more than $100 per ton.

O’Fallon had long been recognized for having the lowest residential trash rates in the County, featuring free curb-side recycling. Staff was determined to maintain the low rates and keep as much of the curbside collection in place. After significant research and negotiations, O’Fallon entered into a contract with the neighboring city of St. Peters, a dual-stream community. St. Peters would accept O’Fallon’s glass and plastic containers and tin and aluminum cans from the City, free of charge, provided the product was clean of contamination. This solution meant the City could continue curbside collection of these materials. But paper and cardboard was another story.

Because St. Peters could not handle the City’s paper and cardboard in their facility, O’Fallon had to find a separate solution and curbside collection of these items was no longer a realistic option. The best solution was to set up drop-off locations for the City’s 88,000 residents, starting with one and expanding to locations throughout O’Fallon.

For all of this to work, staff had to educate residents on the new curbside and drop-off options. Initially, St. Peters had only agreed to work with O’Fallon for the remainder of the year. They needed to see that the product they would receive from O’Fallon was of a high enough quality that they could move it directly into their existing system without over-burdening their staff and equipment. High contamination would end the program immediately.

The comprehensive education program featured nearly 60,000 pieces of direct mail, numerous social media posts, website and e-newsletter articles and educational videos all designed to both inform residents on the new program and educate them on how it would work. Despite all of these methods clearly spelling out the reasons for the change, the initial response from residents was predictably negative.

“We answered every single comment whether it was on social media, over the phone or by email,” said Wenzara. “It was a challenging few weeks as our staff was working 24-hours-a-day answering questions and concerns. But our staff was tremendous. They saw each inquiry as an opportunity to educate our residents. I honestly think this is why we were so successful.”

The education paid off immediately. St. Peters representatives inspected every load that came from O’Fallon and were very positive about the product that they received. The contract between the two cities was soon extended, and new cardboard and paper recycling drop-off locations were added at three locations.

“When we announced these changes, we definitely had a significant number of residents opt out of recycling,” said Wenzara. “But once the anger subsided, residents began to see the benefits of the new program, and we’re seeing more carts out at the curb.
“We definitely are not where we were with our single-stream program in terms of diversion rates, but we know we’re getting a product that’s as clean as possible. That’s something we didn’t have before.”