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Lack of workers forces cut in alley pickup of recyclables

CITY HALL – It’s suddenly become harder to do the right thing with recyclables, for an unexpected reason.

The city Refuse Division stopped emptying recycling dumpsters in alleys because it can’t get enough workers to do the job. Then it released a list of 30 locations where people can drop off their empty tin cans, empty plastic soda bottles, bundles of newspapers or other items they’d rather not see wind up in a landfill.

How long this arrangement will last is anyone’s guess. 

City Refuse Commissioner Todd Waelterman said recently that he had 50 refuse workers, 19 short of the number he should have. The next day, he would lose three more.

A key reason, Waelterman said, is that trash companies are luring employees away. 

“They watch our trucks. They follow them. They go after them,” Waelterman said.

 “We’ve got some of the best operators in the region,” Waelterman said. “They persist very hard.”

The jobs pay $35,800 to start. To attract more people, the city just increased the signing bonus to $3,000 from $1,500. Any applicant with a commercial driver’s license permit will be paid while they qualify for their commercial drivers’ license. City employees who successfully refer an applicant to become a refuse driver can receive a $500 referral bonus.

Making things worse is the fact that the city is about to lose eight drivers to retirement by the end of the year. 

“Right now, we’re mixing solid waste and the recycling together because it saves us the extra trip down the alley,” Waelterman explained. “When we’re fully staffed, we actually make four trips down the alley every week.”

Two are for trash, one is for green waste and one is for recycling. The state mandates that green waste be kept separately, so the only category the city could drop was recycling. 

The change doesn’t affect streets without alleys, where all items are brought to the curb for collection. About 20,000 households can still recycle because they bring everything to the curb.

The city takes in about 17,000 to 18,000 tons of recycling a year, or about 10 percent of everything it collects. 

Waelterman doesn’t think the situation will get worse, if only because of the interest of Mayor Tishaura Jones. 

Before COVID-19, the number of workers started dropping, and the city began offering the original bonuses for new trash truck workers. 

It’s not just the other trash pickup companies that are trying to hire away city employees, Waelterman said. “It goes beyond that. It goes to your truck drivers driving all these Amazon packages around.”

People with a commercial driver’s license have many options, including driving trucks over the road, Waelterman said. “People want drivers everywhere. It’s bigger than trash.”

The job seems tough, but Waelterman insists it’s not so bad, with all of the improvements in the trucks. The cabs are air conditioned, in trucks that cost $250,000 apiece. Short wheelbases make turning easy. Drivers use joysticks to pick up trash.

“This job is not as bad as people think,” Waelterman emhasized.

People can find a list of dropoff sites at

Details about applying for city jobs can be found at

For more information, call 314-622-4308. 

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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