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:
Money and jobs.
Iowans dumped $60.3 million worth of recyclable materials into the state’s landfills last year, an Iowa Statewide Waste Characterization Study published in December showed. Diverting those recyclables for reuse could create more than 6,000 manufacturing jobs, the study’s authors estimated.
“A family probably doesn’t realize how much is getting thrown away, it’s a little here and a little there you know, it’s not all of a sudden they see 1,500 dollar bills,” Anderson said.
This was the fourth study of its kind published by the DNR since 1998, and showed that 20 percent of what Iowans landfilled in 2017 was compostable food waste. That was 6.7 percentage points higher than in a 2011 study. Seven percent of the food thrown into landfills still was packaged.
Another 10 percent of materials entering Iowa’s landfills in 2017 — yard waste, for example — also could have been composted.
This was the first time Iowa’s study separated loose and unopened food waste.
The study also showed that 70 percent of the garbage entering Iowa landfills could be diverted. While roughly one-third of the garbage going into landfills could be composted, close to another third could be recycled and 7 percent could be reused.
Anderson said seeing these numbers was an eye opener. To date, success in reducing garbage dumped into landfills has not been measured in terms of lost market value or potential jobs, he said. Instead, landfills measured how much they reduce garbage intake.
“We’re trying to look at new ways of program success, what should be our measurements or metrics for all this data collection, should it be weight? Should it be dollar value? Should it be gas emission?” he asked.
RECYCLING AND DIVERSION OPPORTUNITIES
Dan Nickey, director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, said convenience is the primary reason so much divertable material ends up in landfills.
The Iowa Waste Reduction Center is located at, but not affiliated with, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. It offers assistance to small businesses or entities looking to address issues of waste and environmental impact.
But real change starts with homeowners, Nickey said.
The Cedar Rapids Linn County Solid Waste Agency works with local businesses to make recycling and reuse options more available for Cedar Rapids-area residents. Its resource recovery center in Marion serves as a one-stop-shop for people looking to dispose of materials that might have life beyond a landfill, Joe Horaney, communications director for the solid waste agency, said.
The waste agency’s resource recovery building has a room called Free Paint, Cleaner’s, Etc. where items such as unused paint, cleaners, gardening materials such as fertilizer, pool chemicals and other items can be dropped off. The materials are available then to anyone free of charge.
“We try to make it as easy as possible for residents. If they’re willing to make the effort to recycle and divert we want to make that easy for them,” Horaney said.
Goodwill of the Heartland partners with the solid waste agency and leaves a bin at the resource recovery center where clean textile materials can be dropped off. Clothing that might have damage can be left as well and Goodwill sells them to places that will accept scraps for reuse, for example turning the materials into rags. The solid waste agency’s education director hands out pencils that have been made from old blue jeans, Horaney said.
Textiles and leather made up 4.1 percent of waste thrown into Iowa landfills in the 2017 report, but it had not increased since 2011.
Plastic retail shopping bags made up 0.9 percent of the waste going into Iowa landfills, up from 0.3 percent, the DNR’s 2011 study showed.
COMPOSTING IN IOWA
Jane Wilch, recycling coordinator for the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, said she was surprised when the 2017 study reported food waste entering the Iowa City landfill went up by 10 percent because the city has done a lot of programming and outreach to residents to encourage waste reduction since a 2011 study.
Video courtesy of City Channel 4– Iowa City in Focus
Wilch said people’s individual habits are key to waste reduction. “So we’re trying to really tackle, what’s the source of the problem: Are we buying too much food at the grocery store? … Are we eating out and we forget about our leftovers in the fridge?” she said.
Composting is the next best option for items such as egg shells, banana peels and pizza boxes.
Iowa City’s landfill has accepted since last year yard waste curbside for the compost site it has near the landfill. The program has taken off, as the compost already has reached capacity. The landfill can accept more residential compost, but no longer has room for more commercial users.
“Clearly, we are diverting quite a lot into our compost program, but there’s still a lot ending up in the landfill, and overall it’s just a larger consumption issue.” Wilch said.
Anderson said eating and consumer habits are a large contribution to the increase in Iowa’s food waste over the last five years.
“Whether they leave the leftover food for the restaurant to dispose of or whether they take it home and don’t eat it, it goes into the trash,” Anderson said.
The Iowa study’s results coincide with a recently published report by the National Restaurant Association that shows Americans are eating out more than ever before.
The state of the industry report, published in April 2017, estimated a 73 percent growth in restaurant sales from $586.7 billion in 2010 to a possible $798.7 billion by the end of 2017. The association has not released a final report on 2017.
Anderson said he wanted the study’s authors to physically separate packaged and loose food waste at landfills during their study so that they could better determine if cities, landfills and businesses would need de-packaging equipment that could help them compost on a larger scale.
Iowa does not have enough facilities equipped to handle all of its waste that could be composted, Anderson said. “Certainly, we can reduce it (waste) at the front end, but once it hits that waste stream, Iowa doesn’t have a whole lot of capacity to manage that,” he said.
Iowa has one large scale commercial composter, GreenRU, in Blairsburg.
GreenRU works with businesses such as hospitals, grocery stores and schools looking to divert food waste out of their trash.
The company’s haulers provide services throughout Iowa, as well as in Nebraska, Minnesota and parts of Illinois and Missouri.
Scott Amendt, GreenRU’s sales and marketing representative, said some companies hesitate to use his firm’s services because they don’t recognize the need. GreenRU takes in about 40,000 tons of food waste each year.
Cost also can play a factor for businesses that don’t want to use GreenRU’s services. GreenRU charges by the haul, not by weight.
“Some of them think the service should be free. Well, we can’t run a truck up and down the road for zero dollars,” Amendt said.
BUSINESSES AND CITIZENS RESPOND
Multiple landfills across Iowa have their own composting programs for residents. They include the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, Cedar Rapids Linn County Solid Waste Agency and Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency.
But for industries serving food and generating waste on a larger scale than a family’s or individual’s kitchen, other resources are available, such as the Iowa Waste Reduction Center.
Jennifer Trent, waste reduction specialist for the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, said the center connects people and business with resources for curbing waste. For example, the center helps solve problems, such as why a compost pile isn’t decomposing as it should. That was the problem for a school district in the northeast Iowa town of Elkader.
IOWA SCHOOL DISTRICT TACKLES WASTE CONTROL
When Ann Gritzner, a science teacher for the Elkader area’s Central Community School District in northeast Iowa, and her class conducted a feasibility test to determine if they could compost their cafeteria food waste, they found the school, with a certified enrollment of between 450 to 500 students, was throwing away 80 to 120 pounds of food a day.
“We actually took all of the food that was wasted at lunch and we dumped it on a tarp in the middle of the street, and after lunch the kids all walked by and saw how much food was wasted,” Gritzner, who has worked for the school since 1993, said.
The project began in the 2015-16 school year for a global science class, where students were challenged to make an environmental impact on the community.
Students now sort their lunch leftovers into different garbage bins, monitored by an adult. At the end of lunch, a student-led compost team hauls the compost waste to a manure spreader on the school campus. The compost is used on the school garden, and given away for donations to the local community.
The system hasn’t always been perfect, Jacob Jansen, 20, a Central graduate who worked on the project while in high school, said. The school quickly began running out of space at its compost site, which was too close to the Turkey River that runs through town. Additionally, the pile froze in the winter.
Jansen and his team contacted Trent, who had reached out to the school after seeing a television news story about the project. Jansen said Trent came to the school multiple times to help the class.
She helped the school obtain permission to use a city lot, giving the school more space so it could move the pile away from the river. She also helped determine that the pile kept freezing because of a lack of carbon, and put the school in contact with a farmer willing to donate corn stalks that could be added to the pile as a carbon source, Jansen said.
Now, three years into the project the Central Community School District is working to get a concrete pad to help turn and maintain the compost better, Gritzner said. The school’s