South KC Recycling Center in search of volunteers
Photo and story by Jill Draper
It’s a busy Saturday morning at the South Recycling Center as community volunteer Carol Petrus wields a long-handled rake to poke a mound of plastic milk jugs further into a metal bin. “There’s a box of aluminum cans in the wrong place,” someone walks up to tell her, so sorting out that situation is her next task. Petrus works a four-hour shift once a month and says she enjoys helping people, the environment and Mother Nature.
There’s a lot more help needed. The center, located at the northwest corner of E. Red Bridge Road and I-49 (the old 71 Highway), could use more volunteers willing to take a monthly shift and it could really, really use more careful residents who pay attention to what they’re dropping off.
“We’re doing the best we can, but we haven’t sufficiently impressed upon people how important it is to follow the guidelines,” says center manager John Fish. He works for the nonprofit Bridging The Gap which contracts with the city of Kansas City, Mo., to manage its drop-off recycling facilities.
Business has increased significantly since the Red Bridge site opened two years ago because similar drop-off centers have been closing all over the metro area. The center that Fish manages is one of only three KCMO centers that remain.
It’s a trend echoing throughout the U.S. ever since China announced in 2017 that it would quit accepting much of the trash that other countries were sending. Part of the reason, says the website Wastedive, which tracks the waste industry, is that recyclable material is often contaminated with unusable items like greasy pizza boxes, dirty cans, plastic bags and Styrofoam cups. Some say that single-stream recycling, for example—the city’s curbside bins where material is co-mingled to be sorted later—is a big reason that contamination rates have gone up in recent years.
Whatever the reason, many of the items people believe are being recycled are now just being sent to local landfills or piling up in a warehouse waiting for a solution.
The South Recycling Center accepts material from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (no drop-offs after hours, please). There are separate bins for office paper, newspaper, aluminum, cardboard, glass, scrap metal, bubble wrap, foam wrap, packing peanuts but no Styrofoam cups or boxes, ink jet and toner cartridges and some small electronics. Strings of old Christmas lights are OK, but no holiday wrapping paper.
The range of plastics accepted has narrowed. The center only wants materials labeled #1 (water bottles), #2 (milk jugs, laundry detergent containers, etc.) and #5 (food tubs and yogurt cups). “There’s basically no market for numbers 3, 4, 6 and 7,” says Fish. See more specific guidelines at bridgingthegap.org/recycle.
He emphasizes that the center is a self-serve site with do-it-yourself sorting.” It’s best to sort your items in separate containers beforehand,” he suggests. After pre-sorting, materials from the center are trucked to a materials recovery facility where they’re further sorted, mostly by machines. From there, the future is uncertain. “Of the big materials, the most profitable is aluminum,” Fish says. “Right now some of the other things are piling up waiting until a market can be found.”
“If you’re paying attention to what’s going on, there’s no way to avoid feeling depressed once in a while,” he admits. “But we can’t give up. A lot of good things are happening, too. Hopefully, we’ll get to a tipping point.”
And what would that tipping point be? People who truly adopt the recycling industry’s mantra: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
To inquire about volunteering, contact Amy Smith, volunteer services manager, at 816-561-1062 or firstname.lastname@example.org.