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Kansas City has a new recycling program, but how is it working for apartment residents?

Many houses in midtown received their new recycling carts this week. A letter from Mayor Quinton Lucas and a list of frequently asked questions are in a small bag attached to each cart.
Hilary Becker
Kansas City Beacon
Many houses in midtown received their new recycling carts this week. A letter from Mayor Quinton Lucas and a list of frequently asked questions are in a small bag attached to each cart.

Kansas City began distributing new recycling carts earlier this month. But apartment buildings with seven or more units will not receive one, leaving these tenants with two options: take their recyclables to one of the city's drop-off locations, or to ask their landlord to contract with a third-party recycling company.

This month, Kansas City began rolling out its new recycling program by delivering carts with lids and wheels to houses across midtown, downtown and the northern and eastern corners of the city. By September, every single-family home and small apartment building will receive one of these shiny large bins to hold their recyclables.

But in the fine print, the city’s recycling website says that apartment buildings with seven or more units will not be receiving a recycling cart, leaving these tenants with two options: to take their recyclables to one of three drop-off locations in the city, or to ask their landlord to contract with a third-party recycling company.

Recycling at apartment buildings can be logistically more complicated than picking up a recycling cart at a single-family home, said Michael Shaw, the director of public works. And Kansas City isn’t the only city struggling to find the best approach.

As Kansas City pushes to reduce its waste output and avoid creating new landfills, urbanists point to cities like New York, Seattle and Dallas for possible solutions.

Limitations of the Kansas City recycling program

Shaw said that the scope of Kansas City’s recycling program is limited by city ordinance.

“What’s within our scope of responsibility, we do. Anything greater than that is a policy decision that needs to be made by the City Council,” he said. “As an environmentalist, I would say that good planets are hard to find, so we really should be trying to do our part to improve the quality of life we have on this planet called Earth.”

Although residents who live in apartments with more than six units might have previously been able to get away with purchasing one of the smaller old bins and leaving it out for pickup, the city is technically not supposed to have served these residents, Shaw said.

If a tenant lives in a building where the landlord does not provide recycling services, they need to drive to one of three drop-off locations — one in the Northland near Claycomo, one in the south near Grandview and one in the northeast industrial district. These drop-off centers, typically operated by volunteers, are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

A new recycle cart sits in city hall. They will begin rolling out May 1.
Chris Fortune
A new recycle cart sits in city hall. They will begin rolling out May 1.

Some urbanists, including Matt Staub, who serves as the condo association president of the building where he lives, are frustrated with the setup. Staub is also on the city’s Parking and Transportation Commission and sits on the Streetcar Authority’s board of directors.

The irony, Staub said, is that residents of large apartment complexes are less likely to own a car than people who live in suburbs — meaning that driving to a recycling center might not be a viable option.

“If our solution is to go take your heavy, bulky recycling to some recycling center in an industrial district that’s five miles from any downtown or midtown neighborhood, that’s not really a reasonable solution,” Staub said. “Unless you’re a warrior for the environment, people aren’t going to do something that requires so much more effort.”

How landlords provide recycling for tenants

Some cities, like Los Angeles, require landlords to provide recycling services for tenants, with a variety of commercial options. Others, like New York City, have programs that serve every residence in the city, with expanded services for buildings with more units.

But in Kansas City, recycling is voluntary. And although Staub’s condo association provides recycling services for the building, many landlords and large property management companies in Kansas City opt not to provide these services.

In part, this is because it costs money to contract with a third-party recycling service, such as Waste Management. And although using a recycling service can be cheaper than trash disposal, it’s only cost-effective if the recycling program can meaningfully reduce the amount of trash. This can depend on how effectively the property managers can limit contamination.

“Contamination will be a huge problem, and that’s often one of the big barriers to apartment recycling,” Shaw said. “The property owners will have to focus very hard on ensuring people aren’t throwing trash into the recycling because once it’s contaminated, then they’re going to be charged trash rates for that material.”

One solution, Shaw said, is that landlords can use a “valet-style” method to pick up tenants’ recycling bins from their doors and put it in the recycling themselves.

At Staub’s apartment building, the condo association provides recycling and works with the building’s residents to prevent contamination. But it comes at a greater cost than if they were to only have a trash service.

“Despite the fact that we’re doing our best to divert trash out of recycling, it ends up costing us,” Staub said. “It’s frustrating because it’s the same tax structure. (Single-family) homeowners don’t pay any more for that service. It’s part of city services, but multifamily residents just don’t get it.”

How other cities handle apartment recycling

On the whole, Staub said that from a fiscal responsibility perspective, it’s cheaper for the city to provide services to multifamily residents than to people in single-family homes.

“It’s pretty common sense,” Staub said. “If you have a block that has 100 residents on it, versus a block that has 10 residents on it, what does it cost to provide roads and sewers and water and trash service to those people on a per-resident basis?”

For that reason, he said the city should be encouraging people to live in higher-density housing, rather than discouraging it by limiting services. The urban centers of Kansas City lost population to the suburbs during the pandemic.

But beyond fiscal responsibility, convenience is also important to encouraging the use of recycling and composting. When recycling is easy and convenient, people are more likely to use it.

Dallas requires all property owners to provide recycling for tenants and employees. In Seattle, the city provides recycling for all multifamily apartments at no cost to tenants or landlords. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, apartment owners can sign up to receive a large recycling container from the city to place outside the complex.

In some cities in Europe, Staub said, there are recycling drop-off bins in every neighborhood — similar to Kansas City’s Ripple glass recycling locations scattered across the city.

“Some cities provide curbside, some cities provide neighborhood-level recycling centers,” Staub said. “The idea that this can’t be done, that there’s no model for it, I just think that’s disingenuous.”

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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