Many small Iowa communities no longer can afford to maintain their local dumps when faced with increasing regulation and permitting fees by the EPA and Iowa Department of Natural Resources. That has forced new ways of thinking about waste management.
Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources sampled trash from 10 landfills and five transfer stations across Iowa for a study published in December 2017, looking to answer the question, “What are Iowans landfilling?” Tom Anderson, of the Iowa DNR’s Land Quality Bureau and the study’s project manager, has an answer to that question.
Iowans dumped 2.7 million tons of garbage into landfills last year. One method the Iowa Department of Natural Resources promotes to reduce the negative influence of dumping all that garbage has on the environment is called the Environmental Management System, but many Iowa landfill operators are reluctant to adopt this new system. How much do you know about Iowa’s efforts to reduce garbage put into landfills?
WMT radio show host Bob Bruce interviewed IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor Lyle Muller about a variety of things, including the landfills story by Sarah Hadley and Sujin Kim, on Feb. 21. Listen to the podcast here:
A promising new program may be the key to pushing Iowa’s landfills into action that decreases the environmental impact of their operations. The program, called Environmental Management System, or EMS, focuses on six specific ways to reduce what we dump into the ground as waste. But participation in the program, which signifies a switch from an outdated planning process that only credits landfills for diverting materials from landfills, has been slow. Only nine of Iowa’s 50 landfills have enrolled, an IowaWatch investigation revealed. That may have to change soon because landfill operators are under increasing government pressure to reduce negative environmental impacts.
Farm belt state struggles in shift to recycling
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 that 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.”
Colors denote intensity of tonnage in fiscal year 2012.
Reo Menning is giving a reporter a tour of Metro Park East Landfill, Iowa’s largest landfill and looking over the expanse when she brings up the fact the they are standing on 30 feet of compacted garbage. That’s the result of taking in 1,700 tons of waste each day during the six days the landfill is open each week, for a grand total of almost half a million tons of waste annually from fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2012. For perspective: that is a little more than 17 percent of the state’s waste. “What we receive can vary day to day and is affected by seasons,” said Menning, public affairs director for the Metro Waste Authority that runs the huge landfill, whose 1,800 acres could hold 2,380 football fields. Garbage is dumped in about 500 of those acres.
Four of every five households in Iowa City, a city with an aggressive recycling program, do not have access to curbside recycling. The availability of residential recycling gets even smaller where curbside service is not available. “Compared to the number of trash Dumpsters, the number of recycling Dumpsters is pretty small. I would say it’s less than 10 percent,” Jen Jordan, recycling coordinator at the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, said. Jordan blames this on people not wanting to pay private garbage haulers the extra cost for recycling services when haulers offer the services.