More than half of what Iowans dump into landfills could have been recycled or composted. In some areas, that amount is as high as 75 percent, landfill operators said.
An IowaWatch investigation revealed the gap between tons dumped into the ground and tons recycled at Iowa’s top five waste agencies is widening.
And unless something changes, it’s set to stay that way because of a lack of available recycling programs, the way recycling and landfill programs are funded by the state, and poor record keeping.
Reo Menning, public affairs director with the Metro Waste Authority located near Mitchellville, explains bluntly, “If recycling doesn’t happen, landfills will fill up faster, and the cost for garbage will go up.”
A little more than 2.86 million tons of trash were dumped in landfills across Iowa in fiscal 2012, which ended June 30. That’s about the same as the previous year’s amount. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ yearly landfill tonnage reports reflect no dramatic decrease or increase in total tonnage over the past 10 years.
However, available state reports analyzed by IowaWatch suggest the percentage of refuse being recycled versus what is landfilled is decreasing.
The Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, one of Iowa’s top five landfills, had a recycling rate of 9.1 percent of what was dumped into the ground in 2002. As of last year, that rate had fallen to 5.4 percent, the IowaWatch analysis showed. The Scott Area Landfill recycling rate dropped from 8.8 percent of what was put into the ground to 5.3 percent during that time, the analysis showed.
Locally, at the Landfill of North Iowa (LNI), the recycling rate has fallen from 4.6 percent in 2002 to 2.7 percent in 2011.
LNI Director Bill Rowland said possible reasons for the decline are the way materials are recyclable or that people are finding other ways to recycle and reduce their waste.
For example, the number of glass containers has declined from 2002 to recent years. Many companies are also going to smaller packaging, he said.
Moreover, one-fourth of all the garbage taken to a landfill in fiscal 2011 was organic material — food and yard waste, textiles, leather, diapers, and rubber, according to a 2011 Iowa Statewide Waste Characterization Study conducted by the Iowa DNR. Data for 2012 were incomplete.
Environmental scientists say this organic material should be diverted from landfills because it produces the greenhouse gas methane while decomposing in the ground without oxygen.
This year marks the 25th year of Iowa’s recycling program. That program also initiated what is known as the tonnage fee. By law, landfills must pay the state DNR fees for each ton of waste that enters their facility. Those tonnage fees range from $3.25 to $4.25, depending on the landfill’s recycling efforts.
Finding the right programs
Easy access is necessary for successful recycling programs. It also is the biggest challenge at the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, said Joe Horaney, the agency’s communication director.
Horaney estimates that only 40,000 of the 128,000 people living in Cedar Rapids have curbside recycling collection. “The rest,” Horaney said, “who either live in mobile homes or in apartment complexes, that aren’t served by city trucks, need to find a recycling center and bring recyclables to the site, which makes recycling a hassle.”
In rural areas of the state, curbside recycling is even harder to come by. Contributing communities to the state’s second largest landfill, located in Mills County, have no program for curbside recycling. So unless a deal is worked with a private hauler, these small communities must transport their recyclables to the recycling facility in Council Bluffs.
In the LNI’s coverage area, Rowland said all of the communities have curbside recycling available; however, how it’s offered might vary.
Another hassle is the effort people need to make to separate recyclable materials. Operators at the Scott Area Landfill, in the Davenport area, are considering a shift from dual-stream — which requires recyclable waste to be separated into paper, bottles, plastic and the like — to single-stream recycling. By taking the sorting responsibility off the shoulders of citizens, they hope to boost residential recycling participation.
Rowland agreed that single-stream recycling could help.
“If you can combine or co-mingle your recycling items together that would make it easier,” he said. “We’re fortunate in Mason City they sort it at the curb. Some communities you have to sort it out yourself.”
Despite efforts like those in Scott County, and the fact that how much waste agencies pay the state depends on how much is dumped, Iowa has a poor system of keeping records on recycling at landfills.
Although the DNR tracks exactly how many tons are dumped in Iowa landfills every fiscal year, it does not track how many recyclable materials are dumped.
So, while some data exists at the county level about curbside collection, no specific statewide data exists for recycling tonnage.
The state does not require tracking information about recycling. Even if it did, tracking recyclable content would be a challenge.
At the LNI Rowland said it relies on residential curbside recycling data collected by communities. The numbers don’t include commercial businesses and what people take to recycling facilities.
Check how much is dumped in your landfill at an interactive map at www.iowawatch.org.
— Globe Gazette reporter Laura Bird contributed to this report.
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This project was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news Website dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work.
SARAH HADLEY and SUJIN KIM are IowaWatch Staff Writers.