Iowa City Stories

April 1, 2010

Reckless Abandon: The sad truth of recycling in Iowa City

Filed under: IC Stories: Coons, Recycling, Iowa City Stories, Local Issues — jnc0420 @ 1:15 pm

I owe this entire project to the Iowa City Yacht Club’s Tuesday night Dance Parties. If not for the obscene amount of plastic cups we bartenders dole out to thirsty patrons, I may have never noticed the lack of recycling done by downtown businesses.

Then again, strolling through downtown alleys, the problem is pretty much in your face.

The fact is, in a city that seems to pride itself on shopping locally and boasts a very hip bicycle culture, it’s a bit surprising to learn that, as a community, we suck at recycling. A fact that is only confirmed by many local businesses and apartment dwellers.

Why residents don’t recycle

As many local apartment dwellers know all too well, the city doesn’t offer on-site recycling services to buildings with more than four units.

This is a serious –and complicated– problem that city officials are hoping to address within the next few years.

The problem with offering recycling to larger buildings is that the system currently in place doesn’t allow for expansion to large units.

In order to implement recycling in larger units, each unit would be issued a small receptacle for curb-side pick-up. This would be both expensive, and a logistical nightmare come pick-up day, according to Iowa City Recycling Coordinator, Jennifer Jordan.

Even the 55 to 60 percent of Iowa City residents who have the option to use the city’s curbside pick-up service for their recyclables don’t always opt for the service, and though there may be a variety of reasons for not “going green,” when it comes down to it, there is one simple explanation.

“People absolutely hate sorting their recyclables,” said Jordan.

The system currently in place calls on residents to do the labor prior to pick-up. So, even if you only have to walk the stuff to the curb, you still have to organize it beforehand.

If you live in an apartment, chances are you have to haul the load to one of the six recycling centers in town.

“I’m busy with too many other things,” said downtown resident Colin Zhalhofer, “my cans and bottles go to the bums and everything else goes in the trash.”

Why businesses don’t recycle

Businesses are responsible for paying for their own means of recycling, according to Jordan.

However, it is apparent downtown that, even if a business paid for recycling bins, in many cases there simply isn’t any room for more receptacles.

“It’s really sad that Iowa City thinks of itself as such a progressive place and all that crap yet they have no system for recycling downtown,” said Iowa City Yacht Club Manager, Pete McCarthy.

McCarthy stores all of the bar’s cardboard in an unoccupied room. When enough cardboard has accumulated, the owner of the bar, Scott Kading takes it to City Carton on Benton Street.

The bar’s liquor bottles get placed in the alley, where they are left for the taking.

Plastic, however, goes right into the garbage.

New Belgium Brewery sponsors beer specials at local bars, requiring the bars to use plastic cups bearing the brewery's logo.

“We’re a small bar and usually only use plastic cups for dance party,” said McCarthy. “Bars like The Union use plastic cups every day and I know for a fact they don’t recycle.”

The Union and The Yacht Club aren’t alone. On a grander scale of waste, restaurants like The Airliner and Quinton’s don’t recycle anything but cardboard. Considering they are getting large food service orders in weekly, the waste adds up quickly.

“We recycle our cardboard but not our plastic. Though I wish we would, because we throw away a shit-ton of it,” said Quinton’s employee, Zech Ward.

Ward also worked briefly at the Atlas, and said that they were much more sensible about the environment than most restaurants he’s worked at. The Atlas recycles metal, cardboard and plastic.

The Airliner uses plastic cups, plates and silverware daily, all of which are thrown away, according to employee, Kori O’Brien.

“It’s too much work to not use plastic. Without it, Airliner would be overrun with dirty dishes,” said O’Brien.

The more restaurant and bar employees I spoke with, the more it became apparent that, when it comes down to it, the businesses don’t want to pay for recycling services, regardless of the restaurant’s size.

Even a large chain like Red Lobster tosses recyclables, according to employee Courtney Taylor.

“It’s a choice (the businesses) make based on willingness and ability,” said Jordan.


“We’re in the midst of the go-green trend, now’s the time to (recycle) by their own merit,” Jordan said of why local businesses should take it upon themselves to reduce waste.

However, Jordan doesn’t see that happening without a push from the city.

She has proposed a variety of ideas to the city, based on what has worked for other cities in the area.

Cedar Falls and Waterloo have an incentive program for businesses to recycle. The program gives official recognition to businesses that recycle by awarding them with a sticker they put in their front window.

The city may also consider offering financial incentives for businesses that choose to recycle.

Another option would be for the city to make recycling mandatory for businesses and force apartment complex owners to provide recycling dumpsters for their tenants.

The problem here is that the recycling regulations could be at odds with other regulations in place for property owners, according to Jordan.

An example would be parking issues. Currently, the city requires apartment complexes to have a certain amount of parking spaces, depending on the size of the complex. In many cases, the lots bear the minimum amount of spaces. If recycling dumpsters took up another parking space, owners may be penalized for not providing enough parking.

Yet another option would be for the city to take over recycling and garbage removal altogether. Which would not be in the best interest of small waste removal companies.

“I hope you’re starting to see that this is a very complicated issue,” said Jordan.

Jordan has presented two ideas to the city recently: single-stream recycling and dual-stream recycling. These practices, though expensive to implement, rid the public from the hassle of sorting almost completely.

Both Des Moines and Cedar Rapids have successfully implemented single-stream recycling. As a result, Cedar Rapidians recycle over twice as much as Iowa Citians (70 percent, 32 percent).

However, Jordan is leaning more toward dual-stream recycling due to contamination problems with single stream. With dual-stream recycling, cardboard, magazines and paper would be separated from everything else.

“With single stream, we may see a 15 percent increase in recycling but a 20 percent increase in contamination,” Jordan said, adding that with dual-stream recycling, the risk of contamination is significantly lowered.

Jordan hopes to implement dual-stream recycling in Iowa City by July 2011. While the service would initially only be available to residents with access to curbside pick-up, she hopes the program will expand to include businesses and apartment complexes.

“We’re trying to come up with a system that doesn’t cost the city a lot of money and is easy for the public to use,” said Jordan.



  1. […] Here’s the story. […]

    Pingback by Shameless Self-Promotion « Whiskey and Other Instruments of Conversational Mayhem — April 7, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  2. […] more on Iowa City Recycling, check out Recycling: A Waste of Time? and Reckless Abandon: The Sad Truth of Recycling in Iowa City Leave a […]

    Pingback by Earth Day in Iowa City « Iowa City Stories — May 13, 2010 @ 11:26 am

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