Lack Of Recycling Options in Glenwood, Mills County Becomes Growing Concern
EDITOR’S NOTE - This story is the first in a series on recycling options in Glenwood and Mills County.
A decade ago, Mills County had more than a dozen sites offering residents places to take their recyclables, diverting thousands of pounds of materials from entering the waste stream and the landfill.
Today, that number is down to just a handful of locations where residents can recycle.
Since the closure of the Glenwood Recycling Center on Tyson Street in 2012 and several other drop-off sites around the county, the City of Glenwood and much of Mills County has become a recycling wasteland.
Glenwood has lacked any concerted recycling effort in the last 10 years. But they aren’t alone. Whereas at one time Malvern, Pacific Junction, Henderson, Mineola, Tabor, Emerson and Silver City all had recycling containers for residents to use, only Emerson and Tabor remain. Currently, just one of the handful of trash haulers that serve the area offers curbside recycling, and that’s in the Glenwood city limits only. Two haulers also offer recycling bins on their properties but those are limited to customers only.
The Glenwood Resource Center’s recycling program is seemingly the most notable of recycling partners in the community. That organization, which is staffed by residents as part of its vocational program, collects and sorts paper for recycling from more than 80 business in and around Glenwood. Monthly they are marketing 20,000 pounds of paper for recycling. They also offer aluminum can and bottle redemption on the campus.
Glenwood City Councilperson Laurie Mead-Smithers called recycling in the city and the county, or lack thereof, “sad.”
“It’s discouraging,” Mead-Smithers said. “I’ve talked to people in Glenwood, not just in my ward, who work hard at recycling and do their part and want to do more and I think we as a city can and should do more because it’s just too hard.”
In the Fall of 2012, the Glenwood City Council voted to close the Tyson Street drop off location that had served the community for nearly 20 years. The city had been contracting with Diane Konfrst, at a cost of approximately $33,000 annually from a fund created by a $1.25 fee on resident water bills, to maintain and service the site. Despite not having a formal partnership with the city, the county kicked in $7,000 in the spring of that year. But bickering between Konfrst and the city over costs, the city and the county failing to come to a partnership agreement on future costs and on-going complaints about the site’s appearance and illegal dumping, the site was permanently shuttered Oct. 1, 2012.
Glenwood Mayor Ron Kohn served on the Mills County Board of Supervisors back in 2012 when the Glenwood site closed. Since leaving the board and being elected mayor, Kohn admits there’s been “nothing much going on with recycling and nothing was really going on then either.”
“The problem was finding someone willing to deal with it,” said Kohn, who personally takes his own recyclables to the Konfrst Trash Service yard site. “There was no agency or individual really who was ready to deal with it. There was no site to collect or any place to take it.”
Reasons why recycling bins have disappeared in other communities varies. Some have long been plagued by lack of monitoring leading to illegal dumping and vandalism. Others have gone the way of apathy. One city clerk who spoke on the condition of anonymity said her town does have a recycling container for city residents but feared advertising it would attract more non-city residents to use the facilities. That’s an on-going problem that has the city considering adding cameras to monitor the site.
“I don’t know if we want people outside to know we have it,” the clerk said. “All the towns around here don’t have recycling anymore and we’ve had people all over the county bringing stuff in and filling it up so our city people can’t use it.”
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As of 2017, the state of Iowa required every city and county to provide for the “establishment and operation of a comprehensive solid waste reduction program consistent with the waste management hierarchy.”
State statute does not indicate what penalties, if any, can be levied on cities or counties that do not make waste reduction a comprehensive plan priority. The law only requires cities and counties that already provide solid waste collection to “formally consider” a recycling ordinance.
According to Glenwood City Administrator Amber Farnan, the city is a member of the Iowa Waste Services Association, a regional group made up of several cities and counties in the region. By approving a resolution of support for the Iowa Waste Services Comprehensive Plan once every five years, Glenwood fulfills the city’s requirement in the Iowa Code regarding recycling. Glenwood approved that resolution of support in October 2021. Iowa Waste Services is the owner/operator of the Loess Hills Regional Sanitary Landfill between Glenwood and Malvern.
Glenwood’s own existing comprehensive plan, dated September 2001, is currently being updated. There is no timeline on when it will be completed, Mead-Smithers said. The 2001 plan is 176 pages long and includes just two pages discussing solid waste and recycling.
“All we are doing as a city right now, we’re literally checking a box, but it doesn’t make it right in my opinion,” Mead-Smithers said. “I feel like we should be doing more. We are literally doing the bare minimum. We are checking the box to be compliant.”
Mead-Smithers said she would like the city to start taking a proactive and cost-effective approach to recycling.
“I think we need to look for ways to make it easier for people in our community to recycle,” Mead-Smithers said.
Just how and where a recycling program could make a comeback in Glenwood is a question Mead-Smithers can’t answer. Back in 2020, she started looking at ways the city could make it easier for residents to recycle and how to do it in a way that is “cost effective.”
The biggest stumbling block, she said, is that trash, recycling, all solid waste for Glenwood residents, is not a “city service,” in that each resident contracts for their own services.
“Communities that offer recycling do it because it’s a city-provided service,” Mead-Smithers said. “It’s not here. And we can’t do it unless we decide to take that on. Which we can’t financially. It’s not something financially we can do.”
Barring Glenwood bidding a city-wide trash contract for its residents that includes a recycling component, a central recycling location similar to the former Tyson Street could remedy these issues.
Mead-Smithers said that is an option but it’s not the only option.
“Does it put a band-aid on the problem for now? Yes, it does. Although we have had that, and a lot of people abused it. You can put as many signs as you want at these (recycling) locations, about sorting plastic and not putting grocery bags in here and people will just go dump furniture or their old TV there. That becomes its own problem because it’s then the city’s responsibility to dispose of it.”
Area waste haulers have and are attempting to fill the recycling vacuum.
Steve Konfrst Trash Service, who operated in Mills County as well as eastern Nebraska, did launch a curbside recycling program for its customers in 2013. That program continued when Konfrst was bought out by Red River Waste Solutions.
When Red River was purchased by Waste Connections of Iowa, that program has continued to this day, albeit scaled back.
When Waste Connections took over two years ago, they scaled the existing, “single sort” program back to the city of Glenwood customers only.
Following the changeover, Waste Connections did plant a roll off container on their Railroad Avenue yard where non-city customers can pay a nominal fee to bring their own recyclables.
“Red River was offering recycling to everyone in the middle of nowhere and we looked at it and frankly, it was costing us a fortune and we were losing money like crazy,” said Alex Shackleton, regional manager at Waste Connections in Glenwood “That’s when we drew new borders and kept it to the city of Glenwood itself.”
Shackleton said about 200 Glenwood customers currently contract for its curbside recycling option that gives them a 96 gallon for paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminum and tin cans. Glass is excluded. Shackleton estimates between 10 and 20 percent of their Glenwood customers elected for the recycling option.
Waste Connections’ trash goes to the Loess Hills Regional Landfill. They are taking unsorted recycling materials to Firstar Fiber in Omaha where they are paying $135 a ton to recycle. That cost is the biggest change Shackleton has seen in the waste hauling industry in the last decade.
“You used to be able to take (recyclable) materials to Firstar and they’d pay you an amount for the cardboard or whatever and then it was they wouldn’t pay you for it, but it was free to dump it. Now you have to pay them to take the materials,” he said. “The backup to process any of this material has just catastrophically changed what the needs are in our area and nationwide. But it’s really worldwide.”
Shackleton estimates his trucks are pulling five tons of recyclables out of Glenwood every month.
That’s very likely a tiny fraction of what isn’t being recycled. No current hard numbers exist on how much is, or even isn’t, being recycled annually in Glenwood. When the Tyson Street location was up and running, Diane Konfrst told The Opinion-Tribune the site collected more than 400 total tons of paper, cardboard, glass, tin cans and plastic combined in 2011.
Mead-Smithers, the Glenwood councilperson, said the effort to push recycling feels like pushing a rock uphill sometimes. She said the city may need to look for partnerships with other communities or agencies, volunteer groups in the area interested in providing recycling options.
Mills County Supervisor Lonnie Mayberry said “hands down” the county is open to such partnership with the City of Glenwood to address recycling. The county has routinely set $5,000 aside for recycling in its budget but that money has not been dispersed since 2018.
“No one has requested it from us,” Mayberry said. “But we do budget for it, and it is available. We don’t have a county recycling location. If the city does get one, we have the money to contribute to it.”
When asked if the City of Glenwood would be open to some sort of joint public recycling effort between the city and county, Kohn hedged slightly. “Possibly,” he said, adding the expense of collection and where the materials would be taken is big challenge for most any cash-scrapped town, including Glenwood.
A roll-off recycling container in a central location in the county open to residents and either secured or closely monitored 24 hours a day seems like the best, if not entirely economically viable, option.
“Personally, I think it’s a decent idea,” Kohn said. “Finding the location and securing it when the public access it and making sure they cooperate with the guidelines is part of the challenge with all recycling locations. It’s a matter of being on a large enough scale there’s staff or some sort of monitoring to deal with it effectively.”
Other potential partners are out there.
The Glenwood Resource Center’s program is among the longest running in southwest Iowa. Area waste hauler also support the idea of less in the waste stream.
Shackleton said Waste Connections is always open to discussions or partnering with the city or county or both on recycling.
“We’re happy to talk about any business that’s in our realm,” he said. “We’d be happy to sit down and discuss any ways we can help out, especially in any of the communities we work in.”
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources also has its Solid Waste Alternatives Program (SWAP) which offers financial assistance to any local government, public or private group or organization or individual to assist in the reduction of solid waste generated and the amount of solid waste landfilled in the state of Iowa.
Mead-Smithers understands there will be challenges but would like to see the city start by taking small steps.
“This is our little corner of the world,” she said. “We’ve got kids picking up trash. What are we going to do to help them? (We tell them) ‘Thanks for picking that up. Here’s the recyclables.’ How do we help them dispose of it to make it easier. If we can just take one little step at a time.”