Recycling in rural Kansas improves

A rural recycling center in Kansas collects materials for processing.

While 70 percent of the State of Kansas’s population resides in urban areas – Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka and Lawrence, the recycling rate of households, be it urban or rural, is around the 25 percent level.

While most urban recycling programs are similar to those in other cities and towns – recycling programs in rural Kansas depend upon individuals making the effort to recycle and on volunteers to donate their time at regional and sub-regional recycling centers.

“Rural communities have a closer knit group of folks that will buy into community initiatives,” Sarah Krom, the president of The Kansas Organization of Recyclers (KOR), “and they also have more folks that are actually involved in employment or livelihoods that depend on the good use of our natural resources.”

Asked why urban communities did not have a higher recycling rate, she replied, “My guess is that where it is not a mandatory program, urban areas do not make it as convenient as it needs to be for people that are having very long work days with commutes.”

Rural residents may only have weekly solid waste collection, and it is up to them to sort their recyclables and take them to a subsidiary location or central recycling center. In some cases the materials are sorted at the center or are placed in sections for metals, glass, paper and plastics.

“Most rural communities have drop-off locations that are manned by volunteers and those volunteers do the final source separation,” said Krom. “At Sunflower Diversified’s 1st Step Recycling in Great Bend, people are asked to pre-separate their recyclables and staff are available to assist as needed to ensure a clean product for our buyers.”

Recycling centers have few employees, but those that are hired are responsible for the baling, crushing and other processes that are considered to be dangerous activities.

Krom stresses that volunteers are essential to the success of rural recycling programs.

“They are probably more important than anything else,” she said. “Without the volunteers, we would not have the ability to get things prepared for trailers to come pick up the materials. The volunteers also encourage others to participate in the program.

Having an increasing number of younger volunteers is expected to improve environmental awareness on the grand scale and improve recycling rates in the short and long terms.

KOR has also embraced the Internet as a tool to get more people recycling.

Individual counties and towns often coordinate events such as e-waste collections and information campaigns, especially as some regional centers serve as focal points for many of the states 105 counties, of which 98 are considered to be rural.

An e-waste collection event will often be used to collect other recyclables and as an educational opportunity.

“What we have found in most of our rural counties is that we take every opportunity to make sure that every aspect of recycling in that county or local area is covered,” said Krom, “whether it is household hazardous waste or e-waste collection or a special Earth Day event. We make sure that the information is there and opportunities are available to recycle.

“Our Great Bend facility takes material from about six counties for processing and preparation for shipment,” she added. “There are several facilities like that, such as those in Pratt and Colby.”

Krom said that some of the excuses for not having curbside collection in rural areas “do not stand up to the weight of scrutiny – there are just so many different variables.

“Some communities do not have single-service solid waste collection, they have a number of private haulers,” she said, “so any program put in place affects maybe 2 to 10 private haulers. Some cities have one individual waste hauler and they are part of a route and they just haven’t looked at source separation being an answer to solid waste concerns. In Kansas you pay for waste collection privately or as part of your city’s utility cost.”

Krom appreciates the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s (KDHE) programs that distribute funds and grants for start-up programs and innovative recycling projects. These grants have allowed urban and rural facilities to update their equipment to maintain or improve efficiency levels and to expand services and recycling rates.

“In rural areas,” said Krom, “this has led to purchases of trailers that can travel to various communities to pick up recyclables and to hold collection events, such as those for e-waste. Businesses involved in recycling have also received grants to improve their collections and processing so that they could handle more materials.”

Recyclables, in some cases are used as feedstock by local manufacturers, but for most communities, said Krom, the materials are purchased by brokers who market them.

Rodney Ferguson, Public Service Executive of the state’s DHE’s Waste Reduction, Public Education, and Grants Unit, said that many rural communities have really strong recycling programs. He recently attended a KOR meeting in which a woman from Stockton, a small town in northwest Kansas, praised her community for its recycling rate and impressed the audience how it matched the recovery rate in urban areas.

The key, said Ferguson, is to make recycling convenient, easy and quick.

The increasing cost of fuel, which has recently experienced a substantial drop from the low $150 range to the low $120 level, is also having an impact on waste collection and recycling pickups.

“It is threatening the system, especially with the smaller amounts of aggregate material in the western part of the state,” said Ferguson, “and then having to travel, even when it is a truckload of material to have it brokered out, initially processed or used to manufacture an end product.”

Kansas Green Teams, an initiative created by Governor Kathleen Sebelius via an executive order to have all state offices and departments recycle by 2007, was expanded to local units of government and businesses.

Kansas does not have a state-mandated diversion or recycling rate.

“We try to make it a voluntary type of approach because we think we are more successful that way with carrots and sticks more so than a hammer approach,” said Ferguson. “I know the amount of natural resources generated per person and what is being diverted by recycling. We are making progress in diversion. We are proud of our diversion rate, but we can do better. Kansans are following the national tide of the green consciousness, something we have not seen since the 1970s and it is going to stay in the national lexicon.”

Kansas is open to taking ideas developed by other states and jurisdictions and to sharing its knowledge and successes.

“You don’t have to re-invent the wheel when you see a program that is having great effect,” said Ferguson.