By Ray Beck as told to Jim Muench
If you ever want to see how hard city employees work, try riding in a garbage truck for a few days. I rode in a garbage truck in 1961, looking for ways to improve our solid waste collection system, and it was an education.
Over the years, Columbia’s solid waste program has been a source of controversy, and today it is a source of green power, as the city uses the methane created by composting garbage for fuel.
One of the more controversial garbage incidents in the city’s history was the “Great Garbage Strike” in about 1971, when the refuse collectors decided not to come to work after Christmas Day because they believed the street department employees got better treatment regarding holiday work schedules.
Garbage piled up for a week before the Columbia City Council got a court injunction that ordered them back to work with threats of jail time. They joined a labor union soon after. Under a state law passed in 1967, public employees are not allowed to strike, although a Missouri Supreme Court decision earlier this year may change that situation.
But that wasn’t the first time “protest” garbage had filled the streets. In 1946, the City Council passed an ordinance outlawing private garbage haulers in favor of municipal collection. To protest the action, private collectors quit picking up garbage two months before the changeover.
By Jan. 1, 1947, when Columbia’s new trucks rolled out to pick up the two-month-old refuse, “it was frozen into cans and boxes so hard it couldn’t be beaten out,” said Harold A. Gadd, Columbia’s first director of waste refuse collection and disposal, according to a 1966 article in the Columbia Missourian. Gadd quit after a year and headed for an engineering position in Kansas City, tired of taking 3 a.m. calls at home from disgruntled citizens. (I’ve taken quite a few of those calls myself.)
Cleaning up Columbia’s refuse collection program was my second major assignment after improving its wastewater system. The garbage directive came about a year after I joined the city in 1960. At that point, Roy Lohse was the city’s refuse superintendent, working out of a large Quonset hut north of the University Power Plant. The city collected garbage in older compactor trucks and sometimes in open trucks. After the 1946 protest, the city eased its ordinance against private collectors so that they were hauling much of Columbia’s garbage again, and other people simply hauled away their own garbage.
The city operated an unlicensed landfill north of the Municipal Airport that is now part of Cosmo Park, although in practice much of the refuse generated in Columbia was dumped along roadsides and set on fire from time to time. Landowners such as Judge William M. Dinwiddie on North Garth Avenue had trouble controlling this illegal dumping. Another prime dumping area lay along Rock Quarry Road south of the Hinkson Bridge, between the road and the creek. A refuse dump south of Stadium Boulevard and west of Flat Branch already had been closed.
In those days, before a 1977 change in the city charter, the mayor and four city council members were all elected for two-year terms at the same time. In 1961, our new mayor and the four new council members were concerned that the refuse system was losing money; we were spending at least $100,000 more than we collected in fees each year. The assignment from the council, by way of the city manager’s office, was brief: “Quit losing money, and clean up the refuse.”
Residential refuse collection cost $1 a month, with pickups twice a week; homeowners signed up for trash pickup and water and light services at the window in the old Municipal Building in the office run by Buford Watson. The city picked up some refuse from inside residential garages, causing liability problems. However, employees picked up most residential trash from the rear of homes using open “toters” carried on their shoulders to the rear “hopper” of the garbage truck in the street. This practice caused a litter problem, especially on windy days.
That’s why I rode in the garbage truck for four days. I needed to understand the way the system worked and to determine whether we were collecting money from all the homes being served. In the trucks, the drivers used Rolodex cards to track the house numbers of paying customers. Collectors would move from the rear of one house to the next between two different streets, which made it difficult to track which garbage came from each address and whether each resident was a paying customer. I discovered that at least 550 homes were not paying the $1 fee, which struck me because it would have more than covered my $504 monthly salary!
A new comprehensive solid waste ordinance passed in September 1962, covering the storage, handling and disposal of all solid wastes generated in or passing through the city. Mayor Robert C. Smith and council members Carl Brady, I.L. Davis, Roy Wiley and Clyde Cunningham deserve credit for this landmark ordinance that transformed our solid waste system into a model for other midwestern cities. Don F. Allard was city manager at the time, and I was director of public works.
The three actions most responsible for cleaning up the area’s solid waste program were the 1962 city ordinance; the subsequent adoption and enforcement of a previously little-used provision in the state statutes that allowed counties to restrict refuse disposal to state-licensed landfills; and the use of Dumpsters by commercial customers. Burning dumps around the city disappeared, and residents no longer had a reason not to put out their refuse for collection. The city accounted for its collection fees separately in an “enterprise account” that included both residential and commercial fees, and the program began to pay its own way.
Under the new ordinance, every owner, occupant, tenant or lessee receiving water and/or electric service within the city limits was required to receive refuse service, if the building had a kitchen unit, and to pay $1.50 per month per family unit unless the Public Works Department and the city manager authorized a waiver of service. The ordinance addressed specifically how garbage should be stored at households. It allowed only the city to haul garbage and private collectors to haul only “rubble.” Although many people applied, very few waivers were given after the Health Department reviewed the premises.
In addition, I pointed out the little-used state statute provision to the three county judges, now known as commissioners, and they adopted it. The provision requiring state-licensed landfills offered another chance to better our local environment. We converted an old coal strip mine pit area east of Columbia near Interstate 70 and Cedar Creek into a licensed landfill. Years later, Peabody Coal donated more strip mine land to the county for a second licensed landfill off U.S. Highway 63, which the city operated, and a third strip mine off Route B is being reclaimed for a landfill today.
Then we tackled the commercial side of the solid waste system. The city collected some trash from inside commercial buildings, often on different floors. It wasn’t an easy task, but most downtown businesses simply stored garbage in alleys and beside buildings, which attracted rodents. The city charged 25 cents a collection minute for commercial garbage accounts, based on the time it took to service each account, but as I studied the problem, it became apparent that it was too difficult for drivers to pick up the trash and keep accurate time too.
Eventually we convinced the business community to accept Dumpsters for a flat fee, which amounted to less than what businesses had been expected to pay, in theory, for their service under the time-keeping system but more than they were paying in practice. A survey of all downtown businesses in 1962 showed that Dumpsters would be more cost-effective and improve the cleanliness and appearance of downtown Columbia—reducing litter, fire and safety hazards as well as flies and rats.
In 1963, Columbia became one of the first cities in the Midwest to use Dumpsters. Since funds were scarce, we leased a truck and 78 Dumpsters with an option to buy. Stan Elmore, an engineer in the Public Works Department, set up a fee schedule for every new Dumpster in town, with special rates for different sizes and shapes.
Although some merchants complained at first about sharing containers or carrying garbage to the alley stayed with private collectors for a while, over time it became clear that Dumpsters were cheaper and produced cleaner alleys.
Soon we leased a second truck and placed Dumpsters at apartments and businesses throughout the city. Today, many of the alley Dumpsters have been replaced with “compacter” containers, which have pistons that compact the trash, and a solid waste district has been established.
Passage of the 1962 ordinance affected every city household as well as the private collectors who could no longer haul garbage. My friend Lewis Noble, a businessman for whom Noble Court is named, was one of those private collectors. I remember him telling the city council that he was not retired but just tired of fighting City Hall. Although he feared that the ordinance would put him out of business, he continued on as a successful businessman.
From a personal standpoint, the 1962 effort proved to be a major challenge, but it provided the opportunity to clean up the city and the surrounding area, and it gave me a chance to put in practice the knowledge I had gained at the university and working with other cities prior to coming to Columbia. The challenge included buying the right number of trucks, laying out routes, and hiring drivers and collectors. Fortunately, with great support from the council and city staff, the program was a success and continues to this day with some modifications.
One major change in 1971 created the most controversy of all: the decision to use garbage bags instead of metal or plastic refuse containers. This one action generated more calls to my house than any other single issue. They came at all hours of the night. Some people barked like dogs, some sarcastically asked what color of ribbon they should tie the bags with, and others were just plain abusive. I guess you could say I got the Harold Gadd treatment.
The bag program began in phases, starting with a pilot project west of Providence where there were fewer student rentals and then moving to the east side of town six months later. The bags helped clean up litter around neighborhoods from both storage and collection and also allowed for better litter control at our licensed landfill. I took some kidding from people around the Midwest because our heavy-duty bags, marked “Columbia, Mo.,” showed up all over the region. They even traveled as far away as Chicago.
Eventually, that controversy subsided, perhaps as people saw the benefits of the new system. Many calls also came from people who had lost something in the trash. I remember a frantic call from a citizen whose relative had been a congressman. His reference library had been hauled from her garage to the landfill by mistake. Late in the day, just before dark with a downpour threatening, Superintendent Roy Lohse and I searched the landfill for a load of boxes dumped that day and put a canvas tarp over them to protect them from the rain. A thankful woman came to recover her boxes the next day.
Over the years, I saw that the refuse workers were some of the hardest-working employees in city government. They work in all weather conditions and take great pride in a job well done. Sometimes it was difficult to find enough of them, and many local students were hired as part-time help during summer vacation months. Richard Wieman has done a great job managing the operation since 1975 with a budget today of more than $15 million. For the services we offer, our rates are very competitive with other cities that use private or public collectors.
Our solid waste system has developed into one of our best city services—a progressive, self-supporting, full-service program for our residents and businesses that has played a major role in the relatively clean environment we enjoy in Columbia. As I look back, I am pleased to have played a part in creating it, along with our recycling program, which I will write about in the next column.