Recycling ride-along in St. Paul

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.45.12 PMLike Twins players, Eureka drivers star on trading cards. The back of Kirk Frauenhelm’s card reveals that he’s an avid gardener, has been driving for Eureka since 2010 and has picked up almost 10 million pounds of recycling. That’s an old card, so he’s well over the 10-million-pound mark now. Luckner Clerveus started just last year, and boasts only a little more than a million pounds picked up.

The first cards were printed so drivers going to special events could give them out to kids. As soon as the cards started circulating, other drivers wanted their own. A couple of years later, the cards are in redesign, and every driver will get new ones soon.

The trading cards focus on Eureka’s biggest asset: its people. I got to see a driver in action on a ride-along February 4. Along with permission to ride along with Netsanet Tefera on his East Side route came strict safety instructions — “Don’t talk to the driver, and don’t get out of the truck.”

Well, I thought, that’s going to make for a pretty boring ride-along. And how can I find out anything if I can’t talk?

Thinking back to my law student days and a ride-along with Chicago police, I realized that I couldn’t remember any conversation. The most memorable  part of that evening was when the officer driving the car did doughnuts on icy intersections. I doubted that the Eureka ride-along would have any such stunt driving, but maybe I could learn something just by watching.

My first impression: That truck is huge! I’ve seen the recycling trucks driving up and down St. Paul streets for years, but as I stand next to the truck, its thirteen-foot height is intimidating. Driver Netsanet Tafera tells me to climb up the steps to what I think of as the driver’s seat. He gets in on the other side, next to the open door.

The truck has two driver’s seats and two sets of controls. Tafera stands in the right side driver’s seat, next to the open door. Sitting in the left-side driver’s seat, I have to keep reminding myself not to touch the steering wheel.His door always open, Tafera climbs in and out for every blue recycling bin, tossing the contents into the trough at the side of the truck, and easily maneuvering the big truck up and down snowy streets. When the trough fills up, he sends it up to dump the load into the body of the truck, an operation that rocks the entire vehicle back and forth. I watch outside-the-truck action from six mirrors and a large, closed-circuit TV screen that shows the view from behind the truck.

By April 1, St. Paul will decide on a contract for collecting and processing recycling. For the past 14 years, St. Paul’s recycling has been handled by the nonprofit Eureka Recycling, which is one of the bidders for the new contract. This is one of a series of posts about Eureka and recycling in St. Paul.  

Eureka drivers work four ten-hour days a week, picking up those blue bins around the city. They start at 6:30 a.m., with a set of warm-up exercises that build flexibility and strength and help minimize injuries. Four drivers have been working since 2004.

Following my safety instructions, I didn’t talk to Tafera during the ride-along. Instead, I talked to Connie Kight, who started at Eureka as a driver in 2008 and is now the fleet manager. I asked her about strange things that end up in recycling bins. “People inadvertently put in all kinds of things,” she said, noting that diapers are a common item mistakenly put in recycling bins. Construction materials, such as wood or nails, also end up in the bins, and so do plastic bags and Kleenex®. That’s where education comes in, teaching people how to recycle, and what not to recycle.

Eureka’s success in education helps to achieve a lower residual rate – the percent of the total material collected that cannot be recycled. According to its website, Eureka has a residual rate of 3.5 percent, compared to a national average of 10 percent.

A week after my ride-along, the Minneapolis City Council voted to sign a five-year contract with Eureka to process the city’s recycling. As the Star Tribune reported, “Proponents of the switch to Eureka also highlighted the nonprofit’s use of full-time employees — rather than temporary labor common at other plants — who receive benefits including health insurance and sick leave.” That’s true for the unionized drivers (represented by the Teamsters Union), and also for all other employees.

Eureka currently collects and processes recycling in St. Paul, Rosedale, and Lauderdale, as well as processing some recycling collected by other haulers. As a non-profit, Eureka also has a wide range of other programs, services and advocacy. With the Minneapolis contract decision, attention now turns to St. Paul, where a decision on the city’s recycling contract will be made by April.

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Filed under environment, St. Paul Notes, work

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