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Kansas City Aims High With Recycling Efforts, But Will They Succeed?

Suzanne Hogan
KCUR 89.3
At the Ripple Glass facility, glass is sorted into different categories. Brown glass will be turned into Boulevard beer bottles. The other glass crushed down and sent to Owens Corning and turned into insulation for houses.

Kansas City's curbside recycling program started in 2004. Since then, our diversion rates, as in the measurement of how much trash we are keeping from the landfills has stayed consistently around the in the 25-30 percent range. The goal is to reach an 80 percent diversion rate by 2020. We're a ways off, but regional experts remain optimistic. 

"We are recycling much more than the numbers show," says Marleen Leonce.

Leonce collects recycling data for the Kansas City, Missouri's department of public works. The city is only counting what it collects, but there has been an increase in recycling from people contributing to commercial and non-profit recycling efforts.

A little history

Before the city had curbside recycling pickup, you'd have to take your recyclable materials to a recycling center run by Bridging The Gap.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Stacia Stelk started out working at Bridging the Gap in the 1990s and now works for Ripple Glass.

The reason the city didn't include glass in curbside program is because if the glass breaks, it can contaminate other recyclable materials. The city has a 7 percent contamination rate, which, according to Leonce at the city, is low.

Glass can be recycled an infinite amount of times, but the thing is, it's not just about putting materials in a bin or dumpster and then that's it. There needs to be a demand for the material. It gets down to economics and it's a volatile market. Nationally, aluminum and white paper are valued highly, but glass has had a tough time.

In our region that's changing. In 2009, Boulevard Brewery, Owens Corning and Ripple Glass saw the opportunity. They partnered up and got to work to form a for-profit recycling venture.

Now there are about 100 purple Ripple Glass dumpsters around the city. At the central facility, glass is collected from these dumpsters, sorted and crushed down. Brown glass is sent to Oklahoma to be turned back into more Boulevard beer bottles. All the other crushed-down glass, or cullet, is sent to Owens Corning in Kansas City, Kansas, to be  turned into insulation for houses.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Glass can be recycled an infinite amount of times. Stacia Stelk shows how they crush down the glass at the Ripple Glass processing facility.

Stacia Stelk, who is now the director at Ripple Glass, says keeping it local makes it work out economically. And people are catching on. She says the city has gone from a 4 percent glass recycling rate to 20 percent.

"The national average is 30 percent," says Stelk. "We feel like there is great opportunity for growth."

Especially at bars and restaurants, she adds. 

According to the Mid-America Regional Council, the average person in the United States throws away about four pounds of trash a day. In our region, it's more like seven pounds. And the majority of waste sent to our landfills is recyclable. The highest percentage is food waste. Cardboard comes in 2nd and paper is 3rd.

So what gives?

"Most people are partial recyclers. They recycle sometimes, they recycle some materials. They're not trying to do as much as they can all of the time," says Jessica Nolan, who is a conservation psychologist. She says perceived convenience and public perception play a big role in why and how much people recycle.

This isn't to discourage the partial recycler, but Nolan and other recycling advocates are trying to figure out how to get partial recyclers to up their game. And really, it all comes down to more education.

Kansas City, Missouri is responding to that idea.

"In the next few days, my job description is changing," says Marleen Leonce.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Andre Jones recycles mattresses at Avenue of Life. Last year they recycled 50,000 mattresses.

Leonce says the city data shows that people are recycling, either through the curbside programs or other efforts like Ripple Glass, Bridging the Gap and other groups. But we could be doing better. That's why her job is changing to include more outreach and public education about recycling. 

"There is always room for growth," she says. "But currently we are doing a good job."

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.

Suzanne Hogan is a contributor and announcer for KCUR 89.3. 

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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