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KC Residents Will Soon Be Able to Throw Away Twice as Much Trash. How Will it Affect Recycling? With bigger trash carts, Kansas City is trying to put a lid on litter and dumping problems. But the city still has a long way to go before it can meet zero-waste goals.

New Kansas City trash carts on a truck. Kansas City will begin delivering the new trash carts in May, with the goal of most households getting one by October. (Contributed)
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4 minute read

Kansas City is about to bottle up its trash better. Bins will replace bags, keeping animals out of the garbage. But the convenience of a lidded trash bin may come at a cost for the environment.

Every week, garbage bags get toted to curbs along Kansas City’s streets the night before trash day.

To raccoons, birds and stray dogs, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Key Takeaways

  • More trash is going to Kansas City’s landfills every year. And as the city distributes new lidded trash bins, residents could end up throwing away even more.
  • To bring down waste levels, Kansas City is expanding its composting and recycling programs. But for it to work, residents need to know how to use those programs.
  • The trash can lids will prevent birds and squirrels from getting into trash, but the best way to keep out raccoons is to separate out compost and rinse recyclables.

By the time the trash trucks come along the next day, there’s a good chance that animals will have torn open bags and scattered plastic, paper towels and diapers across roads and lawns.

That’s been the frustrating reality for Kansas City residents every week for decades. 

But starting in May, Kansas City will deliver new trash bins on wheels to single-family homes and small apartment buildings. All bins should be delivered by October.

“These carts are one of several ways we are working to keep trash and litter off our streets,” City Manager Brian Platt said in an email. “Large, easy-to-move carts with sealed lids help prevent spills and leaks, with more space for waste in these bins than the current two-bag limit.”

But more space for waste could mean more trash filling up landfills more quickly.

Previously, each household was limited to two 40-pound bags of trash per week. The new bins can hold more than twice as much volume and three times as much weight.

Kansas City set a goal in 2009 to divert 80% of its waste from landfills. Now 15 years later, the city is halfway there. The bins, with their bigger capacity, threaten to reverse that progress. And it might still take more effort to keep trash safe from raccoons.

The Two-Bag Limit was Created to Encourage Recycling

When Kansas City first started collecting trash in 1971, there was no limit to what each household could throw away.

That changed in 2004, when the city set up a municipal recycling system. To encourage people to use it, households were restricted to two bags of trash per household (with an extra charge for overflow) and they were encouraged to recycle instead, for free.

It seemed to work for a while — trash dropped by more than a third in the first five years, from more than 150,000 tons in 2004 to just shy of 100,000 tons in 2009.

But over the past few years, the city’s waste collections have crept back up to about 120,000 tons in 2023, according to Public Works Director Michael Shaw.

So why isn’t it working anymore?

Part of the problem, Shaw said, is that Kansas City is growing — particularly in the Northland. This naturally means more trash.

To keep waste down, Kansas City is expanding its recycling and composting programs to keep trash and yard waste out of landfills. 

All single-family homes and small apartments received a recycling bin last year (although those who live in large apartments still can’t use city curbside recycling services), and the city is expanding drop-off compost services across the city.

But if the city wants households to actually recycle and compost, it’ll need to show them how.

Without Recycling Education, KC Will Keep Sending Trash to Landfills

The rules around recycling can get complicated, said Kechia Smith, the director of environmental justice and organizational growth at Bridging the Gap. It is an environmental nonprofit that manages recycling drop-off centers in Kansas City. Plastic stuff poses a particular problem, partly because the rules are constantly changing.

“Comprehension is important,” she said. “You can throw information at people all day long, but if I don’t understand it, what am I supposed to do with all of this?”

The goal under the previous system was to make it cheaper to recycle than to throw trash away. But the problem is that without instructions, some households still threw their recyclables in the trash and paid the extra bag fees that they didn’t know how to avoid.

And when it’s expensive to throw out garbage legally, dumping it illegally on the side of a road becomes more tempting.

With the new, bigger trash bins, Smith said, it could become easier for some residents to simply not bother to learn how recycling works.

“You give me a trash cart, and now I don’t necessarily have to think about recycling,” she said. “You may make it a little easier for people just to say, ‘Oh, I won’t do it at all.’”

That’s where education and community outreach need to come into play, she said. That could mean billboards and flyers. It could also mean giving information to people at grocery stores when they’re buying products that will end up in the trash.

The Problem of Wildlife Getting into Trash

City officials hope that the lidded bins will keep animals from tearing open bags and scattering litter across streets, rivers and parks. But it might take a little more work.

As frustrating as this problem is for humans, Lakeside Nature Center Director Jacque Blessington said it can prove deadly for wildlife.

Lakeside provides veterinary care for urban wildlife. Blessington said her team has encountered raccoons with their heads stuck in jars and bird nests built with plastic mesh. Ducks and geese have been known to eat trash, causing deadly blockages.

The good news is that the new lidded carts can keep most birds and squirrels out of trash. But, she said, raccoons and opossums can sometimes use their fingers to open the lids. 

Separating out recycling and compost can solve this problem.

It will not only keep wildlife out of the trash, but also keep animals safe from litter and landfills further down the line.

Blessington rarely has issues with raccoons getting into her trash because she separates her food into a compost bin and rinses her recyclables.

“The reason that the raccoons are trying to get into the trash bin is because there’s food,” she said.

Taking it one step further, she said Kansas Citians should be more thoughtful about the single-use plastics they’re consuming, as well as the products they allow companies to produce.

“You always want to praise efforts that are being made,” she said. “But it’s not ultimately fixing the problem. It’s just a Band-Aid on a bigger issue that we have as a culture.”

Josh Merchant is a local government reporter with The Kansas City Beacon, where this story first appeared. The Beacon is a member of the KC Media Collective.

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