The Kirkwood City Council has made a bet on a dark horse as it pledged last week to continue its current recycling program. Curbside pickup of unsorted recyclable materials put in single containers will continue at least through the next fiscal year, ending March 31, 2020.

The unknown element is what the city will do with the 4,200 tons of recycled materials it collects each year. As of now, no company has agreed to process those materials after Oct. 31. At that time the current provider, Resource Management Co. of Earth City, said it will stop accepting materials collected by the single-stream method used by Kirkwood and several other St. Louis County municipalities.

There is no apparent alternative to Resource Management, which dominates the market in the St. Louis region with a 50 percent market share. But Kirkwood officials, nevertheless, express confidence that a solution will be found.

"That is our focus; that is our primary goal – to find that market," said Director of Public Services Bill Bensing at the council's Sept. 6 work session.

That won't happen immediately, for the market now is at a virtual stand-still.

"We talked to three haulers this week; they all said, 'get back with me next week,'" Bensing said. "It's the third straight week they've told me to call back next week. But hopefully next week I'll have an answer, at least a dollar answer.

"They (haulers) keep telling me there's a market out there," though likely not in Missouri," he added.

Prices are running wild among haulers and processors of recyclables, Bensing reported.

Resource Management now charges the city $35 a ton for recyclables, versus the $15 a ton it formerly paid Kirkwood for its recycled materials. For the period after Oct. 31, the lowest quote the city has heard is $88 a ton, Bensing said. The highest is around $130 a ton.

It's important to realize that the turmoil in the recyclables markets "is not a Kirkwood problem," Mayor Tim Griffin told the council. Cities across the nation have been affected, as the Chinese buyers who dominate the market for recycled materials announced in May they would stop accepting materials coming from single-stream operations. The explanation given was that unsorted recyclables too often arrived in unusable condition due to contamination.

Despite the dislocation, and attendant cost spirals, in the recyclables market, Kirkwood's overall sanitation operation is in robust condition, Chief Administrative Officer Russ Hawes assured the council.

"The city has reserves in the sanitation fund which can sustain it for about two years," without a precipitous increase in the current residential rate ($20.50 a month), Hawes said. "We understand fully the value to our citizens of curbside recycling, and we are not at this point allowing costs to drive decisions."

The market eventually will settle, Hawes believes. "At that point we can decide what we can and cannot do. Until that point, we intend to sustain operations, and that's a long way from where we were Aug. 14."

On Aug. 14 Bensing announced that the shut off announced by processing facilities might cause the city to discontinue or substantially alter curbside recycling.

The city operates its sanitation operation as an enterprise business, much like its vigorously healthy electric and water departments. Hawes and Bensing are striving to make the trash enterprise as efficient and profitable as its sister companies.

A major operational upgrade is scheduled for next spring, when trash collection will be converted from plastic bags to rolling dumpsters that can be hoisted and emptied by an automated truck lift. The new system will result in large savings of time and labor, Bensing and Hawes said.

"The operation itself is quite strong, quite steady," Hawes said.