The Kirkwood City Council appears ready to take the last and largest step toward automating its trash collection operation: supplying trash carts to each of the 9,200 households its sanitation trucks visit each week.

Purchase of the carts initially will cost the city $630,000, according to a report Public Services Director Bill Bensing’s delivered to a council work session June 6. The expense will be offset slightly by a $25,000 grant from the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District.

The city will buy the carts through a lease/purchase agreement that will cost an additional amount estimated at $95,000 a year.

But the carts will save the city money in the long run, through the complete elimination of hand-tossing bags of trash into trucks, Bensing told the council.

“The city will only pick up trash and recyclables that fit into the carts,” with hoists doing the heavy lifting, he said.

That means that no trash outside the carts, bagged or not, will be collected, Bensing said. The city will continue picking up items by special arrangement (for an additional fee), and the city’s recycling depository will continue to accept bulky items or overflow recycling residents might bring in, he said.

The city will stop supplying black trash bags to residents, making its final distribution in August, Bensing said. Discontinuing the trash bag program will save the city $60,000 a year, he said.

Residents will have a choice between a 64-gallon cart at no additional charge and a 96-gallon cart provided for an additional $5 a month. The same choice and price differential will apply to both trash carts and recycling carts.

Though the pricing structure favors the 96-gallon carts (50 percent more capacity for $5 a month), the city is hoping to keep a good number of its existing 64-gallon recycling carts, due to the high cost of replacement, Bensing said. A mass switch to 96-gallon receptacles for recycling would cost the city in excess of $200,000.

During the next month, residents will receive brochures offering a choice of carts for trash and recycling. Those who do not respond will receive 64-gallon containers for both.

The city is buying the carts from Schaefer Systems International of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Automated pickup is the latest and largest upgrade to the city’s trash collection operation. Commercial trash collection, which mistakenly had been calculated as a highly profitable venture by Bensing’s predecessor in the city’s Public Works Department, was shut down in January 2017.

A re-auditing of the city’s commercial customer base, directed by Bensing, revealed that many business customers actually were home-operated enterprises and were eligible for residential collection rates.

The city followed the discontinuation of commercial collections with acquisition of trucks and other equipment capable of automating its residential operation. This year was supposed to see the payoff of that investment, bringing sanitation operations to solid profitability, as with the city’s two other “enterprise” funds — electricity and water.

However, a large crimp was hammered into these plans last year when the Chinese government, the ultimate and by far the largest purchaser of America’s recycled materials, announced it would shut its doors to materials collected from single-stream recycling systems, such as that used by Kirkwood and many other local municipalities.

Kirkwood officials had to sign an agreement paying substantially higher processing fees to the few recycling centers still willing to accept material from single-stream sources. These operators separate the single-stream materials at their own U.S.-based facilities.

Kirkwood had to increase its budget for landfill expenses in fiscal 2019-20 by $370,000 (nearly 5,000 percent) to accommodate the new cost. Meanwhile, officials have held the line on collection fees, meaning the previously announced timetable for self-sustaining profitability in the city’s sanitation operations is now in doubt.

A resolution approving the lease/purchase agreement with Schaefer will be prepared in time to appear on the agenda for the council’s June 20 meeting, Bensing said.