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Going Green: City-County Recycling Dilemma

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City, County Still In Talks Over Recycling

By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

Plastic bottles blow and tumble in the April winds. Tin cans spill out of the mouth of a 20-foot steel box. Soggy cardboard sprouts from puddles. Scraps of paper, smudged remnants of junk mail and newspapers, litters the gravel lot. The smell, slightly less than that of garbage, festers in the air.

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    No, it’s not a landfill.
    It’s the Glenwood Recycling Center.
    Nestled under a canopy of ash trees in a muddy end of the parking lot at the city ballfield near the Vine Street - Tyson Street intersection, the Glenwood Recycling Center caters to those city and county residents “going green.” The site offers receptacles for paper, plastic, glass and cardboard.
    And, on most days, they also contain trash. Lots and lots of trash.
    In a town without curbside recycling and few recycling options, the unmanned Glenwood drop-site is the only option. Many go to recycle, some go to leave their trash. A couch left one day; bags of dog feces left on another.
    The Glenwood recycling drop-off site is serviced and maintained by Diana Konfrst, owner of Dihne Recycling. She’s been running the Glenwood recycling site for more than 13 years. She has a long list of strange items she’s seen dropped off and each  and every time she finds the innards of a deer in the cardboard bin or bags of dirty diapers in the plastic, she’s continually surprised by people’s ignorance of the term “recycling.”
    “How could people not know this is a recycling site? I say it’s like a landfill down there because that’s the way people have been treating it lately. No respect at all,” she said. “Some people don’t even bother to throw it in the bins. They just drive up, dump it out and drive away. The people that do it, who actually want to recycle, they do a good job. They flatten boxes, they put stuff in the right containers. But some people just don’t care.”
    Glenwood paid Konfrst $33,021 last year for recycling services. The city is paying that money out of a fund collected from city resident water bills at a rate of $1.25 per residence, per month.
    Dihne collected 31.97 tons of plastic, 38.75 tons of glass, 34.45 tons of tin cans, 196 tons of magazines, and 149 tons of cardboard in 2011. Those numbers are up from 2010 and 2009, Konfrst said.
    Some of those recyclables belonged to Lori Murphy. Murphy lives north of Glenwood, just outside the city limits and she uses the city’s recycling drop-off site one or two times a month. She loves the site’s convenience and location but she’s not fond of the litter or the smell on the site.
    “They’re always full, they never seem to empty it,” Murphy said. “The location is good but they don’t keep it up. If the bins were empty more it would be more user friendly. But we don’t live in the city so we’re probably lucky we can use it.”
    Murphy’s complaints are common ones to Jim Webel, the city of Glenwood’s code enforcement officer. He said he gets several complaints weekly about the maintenance of the recycling center from both city and rural county residents.
    “A lot of complaints are that the containers are not user friendly, that it’s not cleaned up or the containers aren’t dumped on a regular basis,” he said. “They’re usually dumped when she (Konfrst) thinks they need to be done.
    “If it was on a schedule, we’d probably have a lot more happy people because they would know these are the days they can dispose of things and they aren’t sitting there longer than they have to.”
    Mills County Supervisor Ron Kohn has heard those criticisms. The problems at the Glenwood site, which is utilized by city and rural residents alike, aren’t any different than any unmanned recycling center.
    “It’s not unusual for a site that isn’t monitored carefully,” Kohn said. “People use it for trash and not recycling. It’s an abuse by a portion of the people in the area. That makes it more expensive because people have to spend time cleaning it up. That’s been true in Pacific Junction, in Hastings, in Malvern and in Henderson.”
    The county recently pledged $7,000 to Dihne Recycling in March to help clean up and better maintain the Glenwood site. The deal was part of a pool of $15,000 the county put aside for recycling this year. Mills County gave $200 each to Silver City and Hastings, $500 to Henderson, $800 to Emerson and $1,000 to Malvern as part of its efforts to assist area recycling programs.
    Kohn said his and the county’s hope was that the payment to Dihne would improve the Glenwood site. Kohn, who uses the Vine Street drop-site for his own recycling, isn’t sure he’s noticed a difference yet.
    “I don’t know how much of a change there has been,” Kohn said. “When I’ve gone down in the last month, I’ve been able to put my recyclables in (the bins). I know for a while she was having a considerable  problem with the cardboard and the plastic (overflowing the bins).”
*   *   *

    For many, the issues facing the Glenwood recycling center and its troubled history can be traced back to 2007. That was the last year the county, according to the Mills County Auditor’s Office, contributed funds to the recycling center.
    Konfrst isn’t shy when discussing the recycling center. It’s treated like a landfill and often resembles one, she says. And she’s even willing to take some blame for the bulk of those maintenance issues – she is a one-woman operation, she said, cleaning up the site herself and then paying to have materials recycled in Council Bluffs. But, she added, that doesn’t absolve the county for its policy failures in denying financial support for the recycling center for so long.
    Konfrst said she received money from the county this year only after several letters and requests for additional funding from the county went unanswered and she finally took her case to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for help.
    “They gave me money because they basically wanted me to shut up,” Konfrst said.
    “The city recycling center was always intended to be used for city residents only, Konfrst said. That being said, she went on, there’s no stopping county residents from using it but the county “has to pay their part.”
    “I’ve been telling them that for years. And the DNR did think they (the county) were paying their part,” she said. “I met with the DNR and the county was on the phone with me the next day saying they were putting me on the agenda for the next (supervisors) meeting.”
    Once upon a time, Kohn said, the county received state funds for recycling they distributed to the city. But when those funds stopped coming in, the country stopped contributing. The county auditor’s officer confirmed the county paid the city $6,048 for “recycling fees” in 2007 but nothing prior to March’s payment.
    Just who exactly is using the recycling center and who should be footing that bill has mired much needed improvements at the Glenwood recycling center in bureaucratic red tape and jurisdictional arguing. The city and county seem unable to agree on whom should be paying for a city service used by county residents and the site has suffered.
    Webel spent a day recently at the recycling location. He watched how the site was used and who was using it. And he conducted an informal poll of recyclers. His survey found 55 percent of those dropping off recyclables were from within the city and 45 percent were from outside the city limits.
    “I just simply asked them if they were from within the city limits or outside the city limits,” he said. “Some were reluctant to tell me where they lived because for fear I would tell them they couldn’t use it. City taxpayers are the ones who are paying for it.”
    Kohn spearheaded the deal with Dihne Recycling and the other municipalities to offset costs on recycling for rural county residents. The county does not have  a contract with Dihne Recycling or the city of Glenwood. While Kohn agrees the county paying its fair share has become an issue with the city, he feels the county’s contribution, while a tough number to decipher, is more in line with the $7,000 than most might think.
    “The amount that Glenwood was contributing should have taken good care of their recycling,” Kohn said. “Part of it is, in the past the money (from the county) went to Glenwood instead of the person doing the recycling. So, this year when we looked at the recycling and the amount that it has increased, we felt it should probably go to the person doing the recycling to help with their costs.”
    Kohn said the fact no “comprehensive” study has been done of who uses the recycling center, has hamstrung discussions on who should pay for what.
    That’s news to Konfrst. In a letter dated Nov. 9, 2011, and sent to the Mills County Board of Supervisors, she details a survey of 60 individuals who visited the recycling center between September and November. Konfrst’s results revealed 16 of the 60 visitors were from Glenwood, 34 were from rural Mills County, four were from another Iowa county and six were from Nebraska. Most said they used the recycling center one to two times per week and all 34 of the rural Mills County visitors agreed they should be paying for recycling services.
    “I understand you can’t just say this is for the city residents only, what are they supposed to do? I understand that,” Konfrst said. “But they (the county) need to pay their part. This isn’t free.”
    Kohn sticks by the county’s payment to Konfrst as being a “fair” contribution.
    “We tried to pay the cities in proportion so that entered into the equation. We tried to look at what other cities were doing in respect to recycling. We looked at the amount that they were recycling and made the decision on that basis,”  Kohn said.
    Webel declined to say if he felt like the county should be paying more. He did, however, say “I would like to see more contribution because it seems to be pretty close to 50/50 split as far as use for city residents and outside city limits. “
    Webel and Kohn agree a recycling summit between Glenwood and Mills County and Dihne Recycling might be needed to solve the issue.
    “It’s been a topic of discussion and will probably continue to be,” Kohn said. “Part of it is identifying the actual cost and then trying to figure out what would be  a fair portion for us to contribute. Economics are always a factor.”
    When told of Kohn and Webel’s plans for a meeting with all three sides, Konfrst had choice words, some of which are not appropriate for publication,
    “I’ve been cleaning up the site for years for free,” she said. “There was no incentive. And that $7,000 was a one-time thing just to shut me up. I’m sick of it. If the whole county didn’t dump here, this site would be fine for Glenwood.”
*  *  *

    The idea of recycling, the very re-using of discarded materials, is thousands of years old. The one consistent tenant of the recycling tradition is it is by its nature a fluid concept. Recycling, as a business, a service and a socially-aware personal policy is ever changing. There’s constant fluctuations to the whim of the manufacturer, the market and the consumer.
    One man’s trash is another man’s gold. And the means by which that gold is mined, as it were, is changing.
    If one Glenwood-area trash hauling service has its way, Glenwood could be in for a recycling sea of change of its own.
    Steve Konfrst Trash Service, a hauling company that serves much of Glenwood, parts of Mills County and eastern Nebraska, placed a half-page ad in the  March 14 edition of The Opinion-Tribune saying it wanted “to help Glenwood go Greener” in big bold letters. The ad went on to say the company is considering offering curbside recycling service to customers in Glenwood and the close surrounding areas “if there is enough interest.”
    Michelle Konfrst, president of Konfrst Trash Service, said the ad was an enticement to those customers who want to “go green.”
    “We would really like to start doing it,” Michelle Konfrst said. “What it amounts to is we would provide a 96-gallon cart to the customer. There would be a fee for recycling because there isn’t a rebate offered for recycling. We’ll have to pay to get rid of the recycling items just like we would at the landfill.”
    The response has been tepid so far – Michelle Konfrst estimates she’s received 10 calls inquiring about recycling – but that hasn’t deterred Steve Konfrst Trash Service from proceeding with curbside recycling plans.
    Webel, for one, is intrigued by the idea of curbside recycling in the city.
    “I’m hoping it can be successful, but it’s going to take a minimum number for him to put something in place, for it to be advantageous to him, because there are expenses he is going to have to incur right off the bat,” Webel said. “And in order to recoup that, I think he’ll have to have a minimum number (recycling).”
    Michelle Konfrst said their current recycling model, referred to as “single stream recycling,” would have all the recycled materials – plastic, cardboard, aluminum cans and tin cans – mixed into one container without being sorted and then taken to an Omaha recycling processor.
    “Without having to sort the materials, it makes it more cost effective to offer recycling,” she said.
    Several factors could determine cost for curbside recycling, including if those wanting to recycle are already a garbage customer and whether they live in or outside the city limits. The bins would be picked up twice monthly.
    “We are looking to provide the service in and just outside Glenwood city limits and see how it grows from there,” Michelle Konfrst said. “We have to look at costs. Having to travel to pick up just one customer isn’t cost effective for us. But we are looking to add it for county residents that are close to Glenwood and working from there.”
    Steve Konfrst Trash Service is modeling its Glenwood plan on a similar curbside recycling program the company established in Plattsmouth, Neb.,  two years ago.
    “People seem very satisfied with it. They really seemed to like the idea they don’t have to sort the items and they can all be dumped in the same cart,” Michelle Konfrst said.
    Webel isn’t sure just how much the city’s recycling center could change if curbside recycling services came about, but he is warming to the idea it would certainly change the look and appearance of the Glenwood drop-off site.
    “Just too early to tell,” he said. “I’d like to see it (curbside recycling) because I think it would really clean up our facility here.”
    Kohn first heard the idea of curbside recycling last fall. He thinks there would be “considerable interest” in a curbside program from both the city and county perspectives.
    “A number of people in rural areas would be interested in it and there would be some that wouldn’t be,” he said. “It’s going to take time and effort to get those things figured out.”
    Whether city and county residents are dropping off recyclables, dragging them to the curb in 96 gallon tubs or simply not recycling at all, the prospect of recycling often comes down to cost vs. the going green factor to Kohn.
    “If they are really into going green, they really want to do it,” Kohn said. “And if they look at the cost of it, they usually decide they can’t afford to do it. Most often that is what recycling comes down to.”