by George Baggett
My old friend Neil Seldman emailed me the other day. He was shocked after reading Kansas City, Missouri was still in the drop-off phase of recycling and people are fighting to keep the last drop-off center open. I briefly explained what really was happening and was amazed he had not heard about our successes earlier. He remembered the old days when curbside recycling was a revolutionary concept in Kansas City, when the Citizens for Recycling organized to battle the concept of two garbage burners, and when citizens began the process of taking over planning for solid waste. He suggested I write the history of recycling in KC and how far we’ve come.
Our story begins with a wonderful woman named Marcia Dickenson. Marcia’s incredible story should be told, but let me briefly note her life was an incredible journey, culminating into a dedicated environmentalist. With a Gandhi-like vow of poverty, she was determined to educate all around her on the true path of saving natural resources. Many of Marcia’s minions, too numerous to mention, were inducted into Marcia’s inner circle, and as is the case with all great causes, this family grew and created a momentum about which we are all proud.
We took on defeating the garbage burners with all the devious actions described by Ho Chi Minh, in his description of how to kill an elephant. As the tide turned, the same folks we had been fighting turned into limp-wrist recyclers, who predicted failure of recycling at every turn. Undaunted, we injected ourselves into the planning process at every step, suspecting an establishment pre-determined failure as SOP, since the our proposed recycling methods did not involve a mega-facility where bonds would be issued, and where profits would find their way to the coffers of the usual suspects.
With the aid of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and the Work On Waste Project – Paul & Ellen Connett, we educated and organized a large citizen group, convincing the city we would continue to be included in the planning process. With their half-hearted plans were fillet’ for all to see, the city council appointed what came to be known as “The Waste Minimization Commission.” Except for two or three members, we lobbied our council to appoint 10 members from our citizen’s group. We took over solid waste planning, meeting at the City Hall three times per week.
Fortunately, the mayor appointed a gentleman named Bob Mann as chairman. Bob, a peace activist and lawyer, called me one late evening to ask about accepting this chairmanship to see if he was stepping into something too complicated for his taste. He knew nothing about recycling, resource recovery or the issues of incinerators and landfills, but clearly cared about the environment. Bob remembers me telling him, “If you take this job, it will change your life significantly.” He took the job, and he has periodically reminded me I was right.
Naive to various points of view, we promoted a bottle bill and gained the attention of the beverage and grocery industry. We abandoned our bottle bill and pulled them into the planning process. We drafted plans for curbside recycling – before we had infrastructure in place to handle collected materials, and voters turned these propositions down three times. With three painful experiences of not having full citizen support, Bob and Marcia came up with a plan to setup drop-off centers. A non-profit contractor company was setup in Bob’s law office called Bridging the Gap, Inc., to handle an all volunteer-run group of drop off sites. The city, and our new friends, the grocers, beverage industries, and our hometown waste disposal company helped to fund the program. Our ulterior motives were to begin recycling and establish markets for collected materials while growing activists who would volunteer and also become a larger voting block for recycling.
With five or six drop-off centers collecting all sorts of materials, with help of the Waste Minimization Commission, the waste hauler also created needed infrastructure for comprehensive recycling – pickup, sorting, accumulating optimal shipping volumes, and completing the circle of finding end uses. This also marked a period of major change in the social atmosphere of the recycling effort. Citizens took ownership of the program and did so with vigor. There spawned cliques of people who volunteered at the various drop-off centers. Many, including me were shocked at the long list of people scheduling their life around manning the collection points. Some of who had been involved from the beginning, dropped away for various reasons as energetic and dedicated young people took over. The list grew and so did support for recycling!
Back on the Waste Minimization Commission we focused on management of problem wastes like used motor oil and tires, household hazardous waste, composting, and recycled building materials. These activities were separated from recycling by the creation of an Environmental Department and the development of an “Environmental Campus.” Again, working with non-profits and private companies to create the infrastructure for management, each area was defined and optimal solutions for proper management were sought.
Rather than attempt to tell the story of Kansas City’s premier building materials recovery center and how Don Reck, one of our citizen activists took this activity to the extreme, I’ll just refer all to: Restore Kansas City. The Restore web site tells only a small portion of the story about how Don Reck and many others worked long and hard to create this exciting and wonderful facility. Those interested in building materials recycling should contact Restore and/or Don Reck. If you are visiting the area, visit Restore KC. Words and pictures understate the magnitude and cheer at this facility – where both workers and customers are amazed by what come in and goes out. For residents, it has become a first stop when planning a home repair! I painted my home with paint from Restore. One neighbor bought high-quality commercial quality windows for his house addition at a fraction of the cost of new.
Next to the Restore facility is a free drop-off composting operation for yard waste, developed after the State of Missouri banned yard waste from landfills. With Kansas City’s many tree-lined boulevards and streets, all recognized the limits of backyard composting. A number of private yard waste management companies have also sprung up, but most popular is the drop-off facility coupled with spring and fall curbside pickup. Regardless, many citizens remain dedicated to backyard composting as a creative method of managing compostable food waste while generating high-quality organic-rich soil for gardens and flowerbeds.
The Kansas City household hazardous waste facility is next to the compost facility in the Environmental Campus. Citizens make appointments to drop off household hazardous waste, and during their visit can take away any item they can use. I once picked up two small propane tanks someone had dropped off. The city also sponsors neighborhood household hazardous drop-off days, through neighborhood organizations, where one can bring old paint and pesticides, and take away useful items others no longer want.
During the solid waste planning process, we also defined a couple of areas of environmental concern where the city was surprised to learn they did not have to be responsible. One was used tires – where an ordinance was passed forcing the dealers of tires to take them back from citizens for a fee limited to $2.00. Tire dealers organized a collection company go to a tire recycler – some are burned and some are sent to recover materials. Most important, a campaign to halt discharge of used motor oil to the city sewers was then coupled with forcing dealers who sold oil to accept used motor oil from do-it-yourselfers. Within months, auto parts stores saw this as a customer draw, and the city was off the hook. With reasonable options, citizens participate responsibly.
The coup de grace came one fine morning nearly four years ago. From my breakfast room window, nearly 300 feet away, I witnessed Bob Mann and city officials speaking to television crews as workers began the first pickup of our citywide comprehensive curbside-recycling program, collecting plastics, paper, cardboard, tin cans, and aluminum cans. News crews filmed city officials with broad smiles of approval, with me sipping coffee quietly in the distance with a Sisyphus-like grin on my face.
The program developed much as we had drafted ten years before, with two bags of garbage free, a one-dollar charge for each bag more than two, and blue bins lining the streets. After a few rough start issues were resolved, we now have nearly 100% participation in the curbside program, and it works so well that by shopping with an eye to what can go into the blue bin, many households typically have only one trash bag at the curb each week and more than one blue bin.
With all this, the city has slowly halted some of the drop-off centers where glass has been collected. Volunteers and citizens are loath to stop recycling glass, and complain loudly as this process withdraws from city life.
However, there is a bright side – We need to focus on developing local companies to utilize materials collected by our various recycling programs. And, if people want to recycle glass, then we must find a local re-use option for this product. As we know, glass is inert and does not impact the landfill, other than take up valuable space. If you go to the Bridging the Gap, Inc. site, you will note that our local Boulevard Brewery is now involved with Bridging the Gap. What do you bet they want to help with the plan to recycle beer bottles?