Kansas City recycling declines with many residents not doing it right anyway

Problem Solvers

Recyclables could be contaminating the whole truck load, sending thousands of tons to the landfills

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” It’s a common phrase used to educate and encourage people to go green.

Kansas City began recycling services nearly two decades ago, but despite years of education and awareness, data suggests its green efforts are lagging behind other major cities.

Even though the city has offered curbside recycling since 2007, the rate of recycling is going down. In fact, Kansas City’s recycling rates have declined by about 70% in the last 14 years.

The Thoughtless Toss

Kansas City saw over a 100% increase in its recycling rates once curbside recycling became an option, from roughly 5,289.7 tons of recycling per 100,000 people in 2006, to 10,687.34 in 2007. 

But almost as soon as the city saw a spike, recycling began steadily falling again.

In 2009, the rate of recycling had already decreased by about 2.5%, to 10,415.74 tons of recycling per 100,000 people. 

By 2010, recycling dropped to a rate of 8,277.96 tons of recycling per 100,000 people, nearly a 22.5% decrease in recycling since curbside recycling programs were instilled.

Matt Riggs, outreach coordinator for the Mid-America Regional Council, said he attributes the decrease in recycling to a lack of education, despite years of investing time and resources to raising awareness toward the issue.

“I think part of it is confusion because a lot of people, they’re not sure what goes in their bin because of lack of education,” he said. “Really, good recycling comes down to two things. It comes to, ‘Is it convenient?’ and ‘Are people being educated about it in the right way?’”

He said other barriers to proper recycling practices include inconvenience, recycling fees, poor access to drop-off centers, and putting a price on the blue bins.

“If they say we get free services, well, nothing’s free,” he said. “It’s being paid through some tax or some fee, somewhere. It’s just not, ‘Here’s your bill for your recycling.’”

According to the city’s recycling website, bins can be purchased for $9 from participating Price Chopper’s and Westlake Ace Hardware Stores. 

But some cities, such as Cincinnati, divvy out bins to residents free of charge, something Cummings said Kansas City cannot afford.

“I don’t think we can afford to give away those bins,” said Louis Cummings, area superintendent at Kansas City, Missouri Public Works. “We have to sell those. The only time that a bin is given to a citizen is if we have an education piece going on with them.”

Cummings said if residents are unable to purchase a bin, they can go to a recycling drop-off center and discard their recyclables for free there. 

This is helpful, he said, because citizens commonly purchase bags from stores that are not recyclable, or simply toss their recyclables into plastic grocery bags. He said this contaminates the recycling pile, and costs the city thousands to remove.

“We can’t recycle those bags, so that stuff has to be dumped out, put in a recycle bin, and then we throw away the bag,” he said. “It’s not the materials [in the bag], it’s the bag itself.”

Cummings said it takes too much time for workers to rip open each and every plastic bag to retrieve the recyclables residing within, which is why the city asks residents to purchase a bin that can be used to store the product until pick-up day.

“If we can get away from the bag use, it would greatly help because that bag goes through the MRF (Material Recovery Facility) and it tangles up the machines,” he said. “It can shut the machine down for hours and costs thousands and thousands of dollars with the damage.”

In other words, bags of recyclables that are delivered to recycling centers in a plastic bag often end up in the landfill. 

Riggs said another issue is people have a bad habit of tossing recyclables, without cleaning out the container first.

“The real problem comes with liquids,” Riggs said. “It could be a half drunk bottle of Dr. Pepper, which would create stickiness and bugs and all that stuff. But even worse, would be like, a half full can of paint thinner.”

Riggs said liquids that are thrown into the recycling pile, often end up soiling the entire load. 

“Because we accept metal, [people think] ‘Oh, well that must mean I can put my paint thinner can in there,’” he said. “Well, that gets crushed in the truck and that paint thinner permeates all that recycling, and it’s a hazardous substance. Something like that, they would probably have to toss the whole load.”

FOX4 visited Green For Life (GFL) Environmental Inc., the Harrisonville company that sorts much of the city’s recycling. There, conveyor belts pull mountains of trash to sorters, who pick out anything that cannot be recycled. 

Tom Coffman, government contracts manager at GFL, said one out of four items tossed in recycling bins, cannot be recycled.

“We don’t want your bowling balls, we don’t want your adult diapers, we don’t want your food waste, we don’t want your clothes,” Coffman said. “Just think. Think a little bit.”

Trash Talk

Between 2019 and 2020, the rate at which Kansas City recycled dropped from about 3,034.4 tons of recycling per 100,000 residents, to nearly 2,991.3 tons, roughly a 1.4% decrease, according to Kansas City trash and recycling collection data

At the same time, the rate at which trash was thrown to the landfills increased by about 7.3%, from approximately 17,677.1 tons of trash per 100,000 residents in 2019, to nearly 18,966.4 tons by 2020.

In fact, Kansas City recycled at a rate roughly 534% less than the rate at which it discarded trash in 2020. 

“I can tell you this, we do have a large influx of illegal dumping,” said Cummings, area superintendent at Kansas City, Missouri Parks and Recreation. “That is a driving factor in trash numbers going back up, as far as any.”

Cummings said illegal dumping contributes to a rise in trash because when illegal dump sites are reported to the city, and respectively cleaned up, the city adds the weight of illicitly disposed waste to its annual trash numbers.

Data available on the city’s website shows illegal dumping is on the rise in Kansas City. 

At least 4,752 instances of illegal dumping were reported to the city in 2020, about 17.8% more than the 3,904 reports that came back in 2019. 

At least 3,000 reports have already been made to the city this year.

Cummings said illegally dumped materials never get sorted for recycling, which means anything that was dumped goes directly to the landfill.

“We don’t sift through illegal dumping for recycling,” he said. “We have to also take into consideration, we don’t know what’s in that illegal dumping. We go in, we look for hazardous materials, things like that that could be dangerous. We look at that stuff before we pick it up, but we do not go through it and pull out recyclables.”

He said it is pointless to sort through trash for recyclables because by the time city workers get to it, it has already been contaminated by unclean materials mixed in the bunch.

The same goes for in-home recycling.

“People think you can just take the pizza box and put it in there, but you can’t because part of that box is contaminated because it’s got grease and all this stuff in there,” Cummings said. “So, when you mix that in with some other recyclables, now you contaminate the whole area that you have this box in.”

Coffman said there are a number of things that can contaminate a recycling bin, but plastic bags tend to be a recycling center’s worst nightmare. 

He said the facility receives unthinkable amounts of bubble wrap, Amazon envelopes, and packaging film – all of which is non-recyclable.

The rate at which the facility received these items escalated during the pandemic, he said.

“Everything changed when people started staying home from COVID and when businesses shut down,” Coffman said. “On the commercial side, our trash volumes went to almost nothing. On the residential side, our trash volumes went up about 30%, like within a week. On the residential side, at the curbside, recycling contamination also escalated. The biggest driver in that, is our nemesis: plastic bags, especially single-use plastic bags, but just plastic bags in general.”

Jemery Cooper, the MRF facility manager, said companies that purchase recycled products for repurposing will not accept materials with a contamination level higher than 20 to 25%.

“There are other things, such as pizza boxes, which can be recycled, but only if they’re not greasy,” Cooper said. “So, we ask that people remove that inside paper, and go ahead and throw that away because that typically contains all of the grease of the pizza. That’s not something that we really want in our recycling stream. So, [you can recycle] pizza boxes, yes. Interlining, no. Bottles, yes. Clamshells, no.”

In other words, when the public disregards its city’s recycling instruction, the recycling centers suffer. 

Cooper said poor recycling habits have put a lot of pressure on workers.

“Four sorters 10 years ago probably could’ve handled this volume, but it’s getting too much now because it’s not only bags [we have to pull out] now,” he said.

Because of high volumes of non-recyclable material being thrown into bins, he said sorting jobs are the most difficult position for the facility to fill.

“It’s very fast-paced,” Cooper said. “There’s so much going on. You got the bags, you got all the tanglers, you got the tape measures, the strollers, the car tires. Whatever they can grab, they’ve gotta grab.” 

He said there are several ways to avoid poor recycling habits that can help make sorters’ jobs easier, especially in the context of plastic bags.

“If you use a paper bag and then recycle the bag, you’re saving the tree in the long run,” he said. “We got multiple systems that it [plastic bags] does affect though. We got a drum feeder and it’s got a bunch of teeth on it and it spins, so it breaks the material apart for us. When all those bags wrap around it, now you’ve got no spread. There’s no breaking, there’s no nothing, so from the very beginning of our machine, it’s an issue.”

Cincinnati also faced a similar problem, but has been aggressive about addressing it.

According to a city official, cracking down on bad recycling habits is an important part of the city’s recycling success. 

Michael Forrester, director of the Office of Sustainability and Environment in Cincinnati, said trash collectors are instructed to not pick up improperly sorted material. In fact, individuals who repeatedly recycle improperly get their recycling bins removed from their property altogether.

“If it’s a one time issue, we’ll give them a warning, all the residents to try and address that issue,” he said. “But if it becomes a pattern, we will absolutely remove the cart from the residence because it needs to be done correctly. If it’s not being done correctly, our job is to educate. Our job is to offer alternatives.”

Forrester said Cincinnati, first, puts a tag on a residents bin, pointing out items that cannot be recycled. But if the resident continues to throw unrecyclable materials in their bin, the city will stop picking it up.

“Ultimately, our job is to remove the carts and manage a program,” Forrester said. “We specifically have an assigned staff member that goes around and addresses trash and recycling carts. Because that clean stream [of recycling] is so important, the recycling providers have been instructed to not pick up improperly sorted material.”

Purifying the Product 

According to Riggs, the biggest hurdle Kansas City faces in regards to recycling is convenience and proper education on “good” recycling.

“The bottom line is it’s easier just to throw it all in one bin and forget about it, right?” Riggs said. “It’s easier just to have a big trash bin there, and whatever I want to get rid of, I toss it in. No thought has to go into it, and that’s the problem. It’s thoughtless. It’s like just the thoughtless toss, is what I call it.”

He said the most effective way to recycle is to educate citizens on what can and cannot go into the bin.

“The issue with commingle is now it’s all going into one bin, so that creates a lot more contamination issues,” Riggs said. “It’s like, wishful recycling.”

Riggs said recycling initially spiked in Kansas City after the city began offering curbside recycling, and again when the city switched from pre-sorted recycling methods to commingled.

“The big change came when curbside went from curbside sorting, to commingled,” he said. “In the old days, here in the metro area, a truck would pull up with compartments, and you would have all your newspapers in this bag, and all your plastic in this bag, and all your aluminum and tin cans in this bag.”

But he said encouraging residents to sort their own recycling was a struggle, which is why recycling initially went up when the city first allowed citizens to toss all recycling materials into one commingled bin. He said this move made it more convenient for residents, incentivizing recycling as a whole.

“[Self-sorting] it is for the cleanliness and purity of the commodity,” Riggs said. “One way to think about recyclables is they’re a commodity, like anything else. The value goes up and down in plastics, and up and down in paper, just like any other commodity on Wall Street.”

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 75% of waste produced in the United States is recyclable, but the national recycling rate is only 34%. The average recycling contamination rate is about 25%.

High contamination rates are the reason China opted out of receiving recycled material from foreign nations several years ago, according to a 2020 Forbes article, something Riggs said had very little impact on the Kansas City region.

“Here in the Midwest, we’re pretty lucky,” he said. “The two major material recovery facilities that service our area, which is about 98 to 99% of the nine-county area, they do have markets for almost everything that they collect for recyclables.”

He said Chinese companies are actually opening paper mills in the United States so they can have better quality control over what they’re getting.

“What we were sending them was pretty low quality stuff,” he said. “There was a lot of trash and contamination in what we’re sending overseas, but if they have more control by being here, domestically, it’s really just kind of rethinking the components of this whole commodity stream.”

Forrester said Cincinnati also dodged shipping its bulk of materials to China because the Midwest is a manufacturing center.

“We make things,” he said. “There’s a demand for this material here. Our provider had a number of long term contracts already in place to use the material here locally, so we weren’t shipping things out to China [much to begin with].”

Some cities, like San Francisco, have implemented composting programs to diminish the amount of food waste contamination that ends up in the city’s recycling facilities.

Robert Reed, spokesman for Recology, the company that hauls trash, recycling, and compost in San Francisco, said composting is the most important type of waste that cities should be repurposing.

“Of all the types of garbage that exist, I personally believe that the food scraps – the vegetable peelings, the coffee grounds, the eggshells – I feel this is the most important type of rubbish, because that’s where the nutrients are and that’s where the carbon is,” Reed said. “The coffee grounds, the banana peels, the egg shells – all these things came from a farm. They need to go back to a farm in the form of compost, to help feed the microorganisms, the microbial colonies near the top soil, that grows our food.”

Reed said the city hired some engineers to conduct a waste characterization study to help identify materials that people and businesses tossed in landfill bins, but could be recovered and repurposed.

“That study showed of the material, that San Francisco was sending to landfill 25 years ago, the biggest portion that could be recovered, or repurposed, was food scraps and yard trimmings, sticks and leaves, and also, paper napkins that are soiled, have some oil on them,” Reed said. “These are all things that can be composted.”

He said if cities across the country can come together and compost, the nation would boost its economy through increased food production and decreased greenhouse gas emissions. He said cities can help their residents embrace composting through steady education.

“We ask people to start with the simple things, things that don’t smell,” Reed said. “So, start with your egg shells, start with your coffee grounds, start with your banana peels. Then, once you’re doing it, people really get into it.”

But according to Forrester, attempts to implement such a program in Cincinnati were not successful.

“It grew too large, too fast, and it needed to shut down,” he said. “It highlights the demand for organic waste, and we do have an anaerobic digester that’s being constructed just outside the city, which is very important to divert organic materials to. We’re [also] investing in setting up small-scale community recycling at local urban gardens.”

In 2018, the rate of recycling in Cincinnati jumped from 4,607.7 tons per 100,000 people in 2017, to 6,235.2 tons in 2018, nearly a 35% increase. By 2019, data shows Cincinnati’s recycling rate hir 6,413.1, about a 39% jump from its 2018 rate.

Forrester said the majority of Cincinnati’s success can be attributed to education and enhancing residents’ access to recycling.

“We really focus on educating people, on trying to move away from wishful recycling,” Forrester said.

Coffman said Kansas City residents have never shown an overwhelming interest in food waste recycling, therefore little has been done to implement such practices.

“People talk they want it and then when you actually start hauling that stuff, week after week, it’s rarely out,” Coffman said. “I think there’s people in this market that’s just not keen on saving up their food waste for a week, and getting rid of it. The people who do tend to, manage it onsite in their own backyard.”

Cummings said a similar trend can be seen in citizens’ responses to Kansas City recycling programs. 

“The population is increasing, but I don’t know if we still have the same, I’ll say, newness of recycling right now,” he said. “I don’t know how many families are still recycling exactly, but I know that there’s less recycling going and we’re trying to push more of an education for recycling. A lot of people want to recycle, but they’re not recycling right and recycling the right things. That’s why you’re seeing an influx of trash going back up.”

Overcoming the Obstacles

Riggs said people who live in apartment complexes have especially poor access because few complexes consider implementing recycling programs. Forrester said this issue is not unique to Kansas City.

“Curbside recycling means you need to have access to the curb,” Forrester said. “That often means that apartment complexes aren’t able to have recycling because you need a cart.”

He said recycling is not possible unless the building and its residents are invested in the program.

“It doesn’t help recycling if the tenants aren’t able to successfully sort or bring the material to the curb for recycling,” he said. “We recognize that there is an equity issue in that design, and that’s something we would like to address going forward.”

Maggie Green, media relations manager for Kansas City, said the city is moving towards incorporating more recycling education, which means imposing violation tags on bins with unrecyclable materials in it.

“If the trash bag is too heavy or if there are more than two bags set out without an approved trash tag, then they would get a violation sticker on it,” she said. “For recycling, you can’t recycle things in a bag. I imagine our crews would then put out a violation sticker.”

But Kansas City just began distributing violation stickers, and Cooper said there is no one tracking how many are being handed out.

Riggs said the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) is working with manufacturers to hold them accountable to the materials used in their products.

“The average person needs to be responsible, but also the manufacturer,” he said. “You have a stake in making this more environmentally friendly through recyclability.”

He said MARC works with the Product Stewardship Institute to help manufacturing companies redesign its packaging to make it recyclable.

“It’s kind of spreading out the responsibility because, right now, the responsibility to recycle is all on Joe Citizen,” he said. “The manufacturers are like, ‘We just make it and sell it. Whatever people do with it after that, that’s their issue,” and so we’re trying to kind of go back up there and say, ‘Okay, this is everyone’s responsibility.’”

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