As executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, Rusty Worley keeps a close eye on things around center city.
These days, Worley is seeing crowds come back almost to full force following the COVID-19 pandemic, marked by stay-at-home orders, closures and caution by customers and staff.
Increasingly with the spring temperatures, there’s renewed hustle and bustle at downtown drinking holes. It’s a change almost anyone can sense – but Worley also keeps track of a subtler metric: bottles.
Some 50 businesses, located downtown, on Commercial Street and in the Pickwick and Cherry district, have opted into a recycling program that doubles as an economic activity measurement tool. Twice a week, staff from the DSA go from bar to bar picking up 35-gallon bins in a former Public Works truck donated by the city. The service is provided at no cost to the businesses.
A part-time worker, Taylor Potter, has been on the job for a couple of months now. But frequently, Worley’s the guy doing the collection.
“For me, it’s an interesting way to interact with our restaurants and nightclubs, to get behind the scenes on our nightlife,” he said.
And Worley doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
“It’s great, knowing you’re doing something positive for the environment,” he said.
The program keeps 60-70 tubs of glass out of the landfill each week, while also ensuring fewer trash trucks make their way through alleys.
Since the start of the program, more than 4.7 million bottles have been diverted from landfills.
By the numbers
In 2008, under the Urban Districts Alliance, the Downtown Glass Recycling Program began with a grant from the Ozarks Headwaters Recycling District. In that first partial year, the program collected 620 containers, each of which can hold about 122 12-ounce bottles. By that math, 75,640 bottles were diverted from the landfill in 2008.
At the height of the program, in 2018, 3,821 containers were collected, diverting 478,362 bottles from the dump.
Worley acknowledges the math is approximate, especially when guessing the number of customers. After all, the bins contain liquor bottles as well, and a single bottle of, say, tequila can yield 16 salty shots.
But a comparison of bottle collections from year to year tells a story, especially since the pandemic.
The peak in 2018 was followed by a healthy collection of 424,316 bottles (3,478 bins) in 2019. But 2020 collection dipped below any full-year collection on record, with only 220,332 bottles (1,806 bins) collected.
Numbers began to hit the normal range again in 2021, with 327,326 bottles (2,683 bins) collected. Through the first quarter this year, a dawning return to normalcy, the 90,158 bottles collected are on pace to top 360,000 bottles for the year.
“It helps us get a barometer of how hospitality businesses are doing coming out of the pandemic,” Worley said. “We’re running very close to where we were before the pandemic.”
But the landscape is different, according to Worley. Center city has lost some of its larger venues, like Vintage Dancelounge, The Complex and Patton Alley Pub.
“It hit those larger venues much harder than the smaller ones,” he said. “The smaller ones have been more nimble in how they respond.”
One success story is Billiards, a tavern with pool tables at the corner of Kimbrough Avenue and St. Louis Street. The business reopened with new owners in early spring.
“It’s been a hive of activity, and it’s generating a lot of glass, plus a lot of positive activity for that corner,” Worley said.
Richard Vance, co-owner of Billiards, said he appreciates the program.
“There’s no place for trash cans and dumpsters down here. He helps us free up a spot,” said Vance. “We put a lot of glass out of here.”
Vance remembered the first time he saw Worley come in wearing jeans on a Saturday. Worley told Vance a lot of people needed their glass picked up, and then he went right to work, loading it up and taking it out.
Vance, like Worley, keeps an eye on the discards.
“The ratio of drinks to food is pretty simple,” he said. “I know how much food we should sell based on how many bottles go out. It’s a good indicator.”
And things are looking good for downtown, according to Vance.
“They’re back,” he said.
Angie Snyder, planner for the Ozarks Headwaters Recycling District, said money for the Downtown Glass Recycling Program comes from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is funded by tipping fees at landfills throughout the state.
State funds cover the solid waste management program but also are divided among 20 districts throughout the state. Ozarks Headwaters serves Greene, Polk, Dallas, Webster and Christian counties.
The district receives about $400,000 from Missouri DNR each year, and a little over a third of that goes toward its administrative costs. The money also funds an in-house grant to run a household chemical collection center, Snyder said.
The rest of the money goes into the grant program that funds DSA’s operation, and Snyder said the district is open to new ideas.
“The project has to divert waste from the landfill,” she said. “The idea was to promote innovation and get organizations and companies to think about waste and recycling.”
She noted the glass collected by the DSA is taken to the Franklin Avenue Recycling Center.
“Glass is one of the absolute most recyclable materials out there,” she said.
Ripple Glass from Kansas City, an offshoot of Boulevard Brewing Co., collects the glass from throughout the region, and much of it is sent across the river to Owens Corning in Kansas City, Kansas, where it is made into fiberglass.
A new grant from Ozarks Headwaters to expand the downtown program came this month, and Worley said he intends to start picking up compostable food from downtown kitchens. This may give an idea, over time, of restaurant traffic, but for now, he said the biggest benefit is in doing the right thing with waste. Restaurants are not yet enrolled in the compost program, but Worley said they will be able to do so soon, and there will be a fee, soon to be determined, based on volume.
Next up this year through the grant: collection of aluminum cans, plastic and possibly cardboard, according to Worley – but he’s going to get the compost program up and running first.
The two-year bottle recycling grant just finished was for $30,000 over the 24-month period. The expanded grant is for $24,000, and Worley said there are some carryover funds.
“We try to make those dollars go as far as we can,” he said.
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