By Jill Draper
Is Kansas City becoming more trashy? Drive along I-435, 71 Highway and other high-traffic roadways and you’ll see bags, bottles, cans, old tires and odd pieces of plastic scattered along the shoulders.
It didn’t used to be like this, say many people commenting on NextDoor, an online social media hub. In a flurry of recent posts, residents of south Kansas City describe the current situation as disgusting, gross and shocking. “It’s an epidemic!” wailed one post. “What’s wrong with people?”
And while the main roads suffer the most, it’s not uncommon to see neighborhood lawns dotted with empty mini-liquor bottles and fast food bags flung from cars or pieces of residential trash whipped away by the wind from recycling bins or ripped by animals from bags waiting to be collected.
Katie Mahoney sometimes travels between Iowa and her home in the Bridlespur neighborhood. She said the trash starts at Liberty and continues west through Olathe and east through Lee’s Summit. “It’s an obscene amount,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to say I’m from here.”
Mahoney, who has complained to both city and state officials, became so exasperated last November that she invited volunteers to join her and her husband in an impromptu trash pickup one Saturday morning. The group now has 70 members and has made two cleanups so far, one at Red Bridge Road and I-49, and another on Holmes Road north and south of the I-435 intersection. Snow and rain have dampened their efforts, but more events will be scheduled in the future.
“Trash is a constant struggle,” said Melissa Black, MoDOT communications manager for the Kansas City area, who noted the department spends over $6 million a year to clean up litter along roadsides. “We can’t pick it up as quickly as people put it out there.”
According to Black, March is “absolutely the worst time of year” for litter, because maintenance crews have been busy with snow removal and pothole repairs. In April they’ll focus on collecting as much trash as possible before mowing in May. “It’s a very cyclical thing.”
MoDOT assigned every possible maintenance employee in the Jackson County area last fall to pick up litter, she said, and they collected thousands of bags.
“Cleaning it up is important, of course, but that’s not really fixing the issue. Not having it out there in the first place is part of the education process. We need people to understand that better.”
Michael Shaw, director of KCMO’s Public Works Department, reported that trash tonnage was up 20% and the amount collected was up 10% since last May when the city took over trash collection. He said the increases most likely were due to more people staying at home.
“If we’re thinking long term, we need to increase the recycling. Our landfill space is limited, and probably by 2040 it will be gone in this area,” said Shaw, speaking on March 12 at a 6th District Second Friday virtual meeting. He noted the alternative is to ship trash to Sedalia at a significant jump in price.
Meanwhile, what can be done? Many residents would like the city to increase the trash bag limit from two to three bags every week or distribute more heavy-duty trash receptacles with lids. They’d also like a return to neighborhood bulky item pickup days.
Another suggestion is to pay the homeless to help pick up trash. In 2019 various cities began partnering with churches and nonprofits to offer the homeless cash or prepaid credit cards in return for a shift picking up litter. In Little Rock, Arkansas, the city allocated $80,000 for a six-month pilot program called “Bridge to Work” that was extended until the pandemic shut it down last March. Paul Atkins, a pastor at Canvas Community Church, was one of the organizers.
The goal was not just spotless streets, but an opportunity for people to turn their lives around and engage with health and temporary housing services. About 650 individuals agreed to work four-hour shifts with a break midway for a free lunch, Atkins said. They were paid $10 per hour (the minimum wage last year in Arkansas) to respond to trash complaints made through the city’s 311 office.
During that one-year period participants picked up 3,681 bags of trash at 284 sites (some multiple times) and logged 4,199 hours.
“It seems to be something that makes sense for a lot of people,” Atkins said. “I assume the city will want to resume the program.”
Covid-19 shut down another program that many would like to see resumed—the use of work-release prisoners to help with litter pickup along Missouri roadways. Because the crews were transported together in a van, the Department of Corrections made a joint decision with MoDOT to suspend the program last year.
“Statewide there were 55-65 work-release crews with four people on each crew that picked up trash on state highways. So that’s approximately 250 less people out picking up trash each day,” said Linda Horn, MoDOT communications director, who added she did not know when the situation would change.
The City of Grandview is trying something new. Instead of holding cleanup days during two months of the year, they’re scheduling one cleanup day every month from April-October. And anyone is welcome to participate in the ongoing Trashbusters program that pays $5 for each bag of trash collected in designated areas (safety vests, pickup sticks and trash bags are provided). “It’s a good way for groups like Grandview Assistance and the Boy Scouts to raise money,” said Valarie Poindexter, city communications manager. She said Grandview paid out $480 last year to individuals and organizations through Trashbusters. Call 816-316-4838 for information.
“Trash is an issue that’s become kind of a pandemic in itself,” observed Mahoney. “I’ve travelled a lot for work lately, so I’ve seen several other much larger cities which don’t seem to have this problem.” Her advice: Complain to whomever you can, and if you’re able, please pick up some trash, even if it’s just along your street. See nextdoor.com/g/5523c9z5n/ to join her group or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.