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Sustainable Efforts in Iowa City are Making the Community an Eco⁠ Friendly Hub

by Riley Davis

The Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center’s apartment recycling mandate yields effects and responses after its implementation last year.

Worn blue dumpsters dot the narrow alleyways that stretch in long lines behind Iowa City’s countless apartment buildings. Their chipped, sun-faded sides struggle to hold in empty cans and bottles, pieces of cardboard, and other recyclable materials not meant for the landfill. 

Garbage trucks rumble down the strips of road and empty the dumpsters’ contents into their compactors. After all the trucks are loaded and their routes are completed, they drive six miles home to the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center to dump their miscellaneous collections. 

Upon arrival, large white trucks and yellow bulldozers take over and move the materials into designated dumping areas. They add them to the layers of old garbage and pack them down into the hard dirt, burying reusable materials that could have been salvaged had there been a recycling option available. 

University of Iowa students had repeatedly witnessed this process and were appalled by the amount of recyclable material that was making its way into the landfill. They felt that something could easily be done to remedy the problem if only someone would take the initiative. 

In 2013, they decided to make that change themselves. 

The idea of apartment recycling was formed and gained the support of the UI student government. An online petition was quickly put together and, according to a Dec. 28, 2015, Press Citizen article, it collected more than 1,700 signatures. 

The students’ hard work captured city council’s attention and they began working alongside the UI Office of Sustainability and the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center to officially implement a policy change that spurred the increased availability of recycling options for apartment buildings in Iowa City. 

To learn more about the Office of Sustainability and their involvement on campus and in the community, click below to listen to an audio interview with Recycling Coordinator Beth MacKenzie.

The regulation mandated that all landlords and rental companies with apartment buildings in Iowa City had to offer a recycling option to their tenants by the end of 2018. 

According to a Jan. 8, 2018, Little Village article, which interviewed Iowa City Senior Housing Inspector Stan Laverman, the regulation was passed in 2016 but had a slow start as it wasn’t required until landlords and rental companies attempted to renew their two-year rental permits. 

Jen Jordan, the resource management superintendent of the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, was one of many individuals who worked on the mandate with the UI student government and UI Office of Sustainability throughout its implementation. 

She supported the article’s information and said that while landlords and rental companies were required to have recycling available by the end of 2018, the center and the city were understanding of properties with certain restrictions that made them unable to do so. 

“We understand that there are some places that are struggling to make that happen. So, it’s not 100% implemented, but it’s closer every time the permitting folks from the city do an inspection of the apartments,” Jordan said. “When that happens a conversation is had, and they’re given a certain amount of time to get caught up.”

Although the center was lenient with some landlords and rental companies, they faced complaints and push-back from others. 

Butterflies on display at Earth Fest, an event put on by Iowa City to raise awareness about sustainability

Butterflies on display at Earth Fest, an event put on by Iowa City to raise awareness about sustainability

“Anytime there’s change, or something that’s regulated by the city, there’s almost always push-back,” she said. “But, the mandate was something that city counsel felt strongly about and that the community felt strongly about. So, we did our best to help those landlords and apartment agencies work through any issues.”

The main issue for landlords and rental companies was the limited space that their properties had for the new recycling facilities and containers.

“I think that it’s a good idea, but most of our properties are only designed for one dumpster and the city requires us to build something for it like a structure or a concrete pad,” Max Johnson, a spokesperson from Big Ten Property Management LLC, said. “It creates more work for us and more problems for the tenants.”

It ends up being an issue of convenience, he said. The recycling containers take up parking spaces and create an additional cost to tenants. 

Another issue is that some tenants don’t properly sort their recycling from their trash and the two dumpsters are often mistaken for one another. 

While the mandate has created an increase in recycled materials and a decrease in materials going into the landfill, the mixing of trash and recycling is an ever-present issue, Jen Jordan said.

There is always going to be contamination, she said. But the center’s intent is to get it down as low as possible and to educate residents how to properly dispose of recycling. 

“There are three parts to every program that the city offers which make it functional,” Jordan said. “The city has to offer programs, residents have to know about it, and then they have to use it correctly. The program won’t work as intended if someone is just offering it; it has to be used correctly as well.”

Brenda Nations, the sustainability coordinator for the City of Iowa City, works in the same department as the city’s rental and permit inspectors. Their job is to report who has complied with the recycling mandate and they deal with complaints from landlords, rental companies, and residents. 

“The majority of responses that we’ve received are that a lot of residents are really happy,” Nations said. “But there have been complaints that some people still don’t have recycling. Most of the time there’s simply not good communication between the landlords and tenants. For instance, their apartment might have recycling, but it might be down the alley and they might not even know about it.”

A volunteer teaches kids about invasive species

A volunteer teaches kids about invasive species

Shared recycling for a few blocks worth of apartments also presents a challenge, she said. People may know where their recycling container is, but it may be in an inconvenient location that deters them for recycling. 

Iowa City resident, Lewis Howard, has lived in the city all his life. This is his first year living in an apartment and he said that recycling has been available since he moved in. The catch is that it’s five blocks away. 

“It’s great that it’s there but sometimes my roommates and I debate whether it’s worth the walk to recycle or if we should just throw stuff away,” Howard said. “If it was closer I definitely think that we would use it more.”

Nick Nelson, another a resident of Iowa City and a student at the University of Iowa, moved to his apartment in 2017. Since moving out of the dorms he has missed being able to recycle and was excited when his apartment complex provided a recycling dumpster in the alley. 

“When I was living in the dorms it was easy to take recycling for granted because it was just down the hall,” Nelson said. “But after I moved to my apartment I was frustrated because I had to store empty containers everywhere and even more frustrated when I ran out of space and had to throw them away. Now I can just walk downstairs instead of driving across town.”