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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Trash Is Piling Up In Kansas City. Are We Ready To Start Thinking About The Environment Again?

Gina Kaufmann
Come trash day, do the curbside stacks of household waste look bigger than they used to? You're not imagining things. Kansas Citians are generating 20% more trash than they did this time last year.

Pandemic-style commerce has added to household waste in the form of carryout packaging, delivery boxes and disposable grocery bags. Maybe it's time to deal with that. These Kansas Citians show us how.

Remember March? The start of the pandemic, and we didn't know a lot about the spread of what we still called "the novel coronavirus." So we played it safe. Grocery stores stopped putting items in reusable bags from home. Coffee shops went disposable-only, no longer filling favorite mugs. All restaurant food turned into carryout, introducing us to an elaborate ritual of unloading special meals from packages within packages within doubled up plastic bags.

We're getting used to that. We understand it as part of living life while keeping ourselves and others safe. Anyway, we have a lot on our minds. Back-to-school plans are changing every day, fights against racial injustice are happening in the streets and we're gearing up for a presidential election that could be a tipping point for democracy.

Just don't look at the trash can.

Overflowing waste bins are a nasty reminder that the laws of the universe — particularly the one about matter neither being created nor destroyed, only changing form — were not suspended. We're generating a lot of trash. And it's not so novel any more.

Michael Shaw of the Solid Waste Division for Kansas City, Missouri, just ran the numbers for residential trash pickup in May, June, and July. Kansas Citians threw away 25,725 tons of trash in that time. That's 5,000 tons more than that same period last year. Put another way, the city's residential trash volume is up 20% from 2019.

Megean Weldon is Kansas City's "Zero Waste Nerd" and has a zero-waste blog, a zero-waste book, and a Facebook group where Kansas Citians aiming for a zero-waste lifestyle can help each other. But even she has been generating more trash.

"The pandemic has definitely made sustainable living a lot more difficult than it was six months ago," she says. "I can't talk about a lot of the things that I used to talk about. I can't talk about reusable bags. I can't talk about reusable coffee cups. I can't talk about bringing your own containers to the restaurant, because it's just not the time or the place for it."

But Weldon says she sees too many people getting overwhelmed and giving up because the things they used to do aren't possible. She suggests they shift their focus to what they can control and look for other areas in their lives where sustainable practices might still be viable.

Weldon says, "The most impactful things you can do to reduce your waste, you can still do right now. Number one, consume less. How we deal with our food waste, number two. And what we eat, number three. Those are all things we can still control."

The size of the trash haul is hard to ignore, she says, because it's one of the few ways we can measure how we're doing, sustainability-wise.

"Everybody has some kind of metric so they can see, you know, 'How am I actually making a difference?' and of course the trash can is a super easy way to see that. If I'm making less trash, I'm making an impact," Weldon says. "It's hard to put in perspective things like, 'Oh, if I just eat meat one day less a week, I'm actually making a huge impact.' Because you can't see the metric."

Liz Cook
Pitch restaurant critic Liz Cook shared this photo depicting how she's using the growing collection of takeout containers she claims to be "hoarding": to store spices.

The longer the pandemic goes on, the better businesses are getting at finding work-arounds, likely taking cues from a Kansas City coffee shop that's kept disposable cups out of circulation the whole time.

Last November, Oddly Correct announced a new policy: to-go drinks would be served in glass jars to be returned for a refund. No more paper. It would be easy to imagine reversing that decision faced with COVID-19, but Oddly Correct didn't budge.

"There was one brief conversation," manager Mike Schroeder allows, explaining that the only question in anyone's mind was how to keep customers and employees confident in the cleanliness of items being passed back and forth. To deal with that, they set up a return station for the jars outside the shop. The refund and return process went contact-free.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Barista Danielle Roberts preps a koozie for a jar of coffee to go at Oddly Correct. The jars are re-useable and returnable for a refund.

Making the case for reusable jars to customers hasn't been a challenge. The real challenge has been keeping enough jars in stock for demand. With people going out less frequently, they don't return jars quite as quickly, so the jar supply has gotten "down to the wire" a few times.

He adds, "This was something that people felt like they could get behind. It was an easy thing for people to feel okay about doing because it wasn't like when you go and get takeout. I mean, if you've done that you see the stack of stuff you get, like everything's in its own little container and then that's in a bag and there's like disposable napkins and silverware and stuff like that. So yeah, and it does feel a little more normal to hold a non-disposable object in your hand, to be able to drink from that and know that there's a system around it, that it's still clean, it's still safe and it's still sustainable."

Consumption is steeped in habit, and Oddly Correct has succeeded by creating a new habit to replace the to-go container with a cup, lid and sleeve.

And that comes back to something the Zero Waste Nerd likes to tell people who come to her for advice.

"When you become overwhelmed, it makes sustainable living not sustainable," she says. "Think about maybe one or two things to tackle at a time until it feels normal, until it feels easy. And then add a couple more things into the routine."

Kind of like grabbing a face mask and hand sanitizer when you leave the house, or standing six feet behind the previous customer at the grocery store. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that normal can change, and we are capable of doing things differently than we've always done them before.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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