As downtown Columbia grows, city and businesses hope for improved waste collection

The City of Columbia is working with local businesses to find better ways to collect trash and recycling in historically troublesome areas of downtown.

As the city has grown and the business landscape has evolved downtown, Columbia Solid Waste hasn’t kept up when it comes to best collecting waste downtown, said Steve Hunt, the city’s solid waste manager, at a community meeting July 9 at Columbia City Hall.

Hunt said he scheduled the meeting after receiving complaints from businesses owners downtown regarding overflowing dumpsters and a lack of recycling, an issue the city has been experiencing in certain areas for years.

One particular alley — called Alley A and located between Broadway and Cherry Street, and Eighth and Ninth Streets — was the focus of the meeting. There, half a dozen business owners complained about a lack of recycling and poor accountability in the alley.

“Part of the problem is that there isn’t recycling,” said Deb Rust, co-owner of Tellers Gallery and Bar. “You have six dumpsters in Alley A, and everyone’s throwing all of their glass and all of their plastic in there.”

Other property owners complained that on major event days, like home football games and college move-in weeks, that dumpsters get overwhelmed, practically blocking whole alleys with piles of trash.

But Hunt and other downtown officials say the matter is more complicated than just one alley, and that Monday’s meeting was just part of a larger city plan to create more comprehensive and permanent solutions for how downtown waste gets handled.

“We were always reacting to complaints instead of coming up with a solid, comprehensive plan,” Hunt said. “The bigger deal is that downtown has changed so much, what’s currently there may have worked in the past, but now it’s an issue.”

Narrow alleys, a changing landscape
Piles of garbage and cardboard litter the ground outside one of Columbia’s downtown alleys. This photo, taken three years ago in Alley A, shows how some areas have been problematic for city waste collection, said Steve Hunt, the city’s solid waste manager.

Katie Essing, executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District (CID), said Alley A isn’t the only area downtown facing issues with trash and recycling collection. “We have a few — we call them hot spots with trash — where there’s just a large number of restaurants and businesses,” she said.

Between 2000 and 2016, Columbia’s downtown population grew by more than 1,500 residents within just a one mile radius of the main stretch of Broadway, according to CID estimates. And the group, which represents downtown businesses and property owners, predicts the population could increase another 1,000 by 2021. The area also saw a boom in student housing developments starting around 2010.

“Downtown evolved rapidly with all the residential that’s been added in recent years,” Essing said. “That’s brought new development, new restaurants, new retail.”

With that development came more waste, Essing said. And for years, the city has struggled with finding areas downtown with enough space to properly store and maintain waste and recycling bins.

Take Alley A for example, Hunt said. Downtown Columbia’s alleyways were designed 200 years ago and were never meant to handle modern, 8-foot-wide garbage trucks. Ideally, he said, with all the restaurants on that block, including Tellers, Sycamore and Broadway Brewery, the alley should have a trash compactor.

Compactors can hold four times as much waste as a dumpster. But because the alley is simply too narrow to house one without closing off the thoroughfare to traffic, Hunt said, the city is left with less than ideal options. That was the point of Monday’s meeting, he said: to start getting input from the local businesses there on how to move forward and find long-term solutions.

Columbia was able to do that for another problem alley, behind Commerce Bank on Broadway, between Ninth and Tenth Streets, Hunt said. Back in May, the city purchased an available lot for $690,000 where it can now permanently host waste collection for the two surrounding blocks. “That’s what we want,” Hunt said. “We’re trying to come up with permanent solutions.”

Setting larger goals, updating ordinances

Hunt also said the city is setting larger goals to address waste collection downtown, as well as considering updating municipal waste ordinances.

In May, the Columbia City Council approved a plan proposed by the city’s solid waste department to add five new compactors around downtown, Hunt said. Currently, the area has around 19 compactors, he said, and the additional ones — coupled with more education efforts — should help mitigate some of downtown’s waste issues.

The move might also help save the city money in the long run, Hunt said. Each compactor costs about $25,000. But they’re also more efficient, he said, and can be serviced twice a week with one employee, versus six times a week with two employees when using dumpsters.

Jesse Garcia, who owns several businesses downtown and sits on the Downtown CID board, said updating the city’s waste codes is essential to improving downtown’s trash problems. “Downtown is sort of like the Wild West,” he said. “There aren’t codes for everything yet. So, as we’re experiencing growing pains, we’re doing our best to find solutions.”

Some ordinances the city might consider include updating language to make it clear that trash should be put in bags going into dumpsters, Hunt said, or even creating a new law that would charge responsible parties a fee when city workers must clean up trash or recycling piled up on the ground near a waste bin.

“I’m working with folks in the legal department to get those ordinances updated,” Hunt said.

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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