Recycling program wraps up

The Iola Rotary Club ends its longtime recycling program today. The program is a victim of its success, as it grew so big that volunteers couldn't keep up. The future of recycling in the community is uncertain.

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December 17, 2021 - 3:28 PM

Bruce Symes, left, and Steve Strickler discuss the future of recycling in Allen County. Photo by Susan Lynn/Register

Today is a deadline many thought they would never come. 

The recycling program managed by Iola Rotary Club for more than 25 years in one form or another is ending. 

That means that tons of newspapers, cardboard, and other recyclables will now be dumped into Allen County’s landfill rather than finding their way to be repurposed in other forms. Newspapers typically become egg cartons or paper plates. Cardboard becomes cereal boxes and paper towels. Aluminum cans are turned into bicycles and car parts.  

The local program has been so successful that people from Fort Scott, Colony and Chanute regularly bring their castoffs here.  

The program is a victim of its success. The Iola Rotary Club has run out of steam to keep the growing program going. The last nail in its coffin was when Peerless Products asked the club several months ago to relocate its recycling bins on the south side of the plant so that the manufacturer could use the space.  

On Thursday, a handful of Rotarians and other concerned citizens met to discuss the program’s options. Local dairyman Steve Strickler convened the meeting. For several years Strickler has been instrumental in organizing the cardboard collection system. Today, almost 200 receptacles are scattered about town to collect the waste. The 250-gallon totes come from Strickler’s dairy.

That effort alone saves 40,000 to 50,000 lbs. of cardboard from being hauled to the landfill east of LaHarpe.  

Janie Works and Damaris Kunkler of Humboldt said they have 14 receptacles there to collect cardboard. That is the extent of Humboldt’s recycling efforts which also relies on volunteers. 

“We can’t take any more,” Kunkler said, when asked if Humboldt would accept cardboard from other places. 

Also at the meeting were Bruce Symes, chairman of the Allen County Commission, and Mark Peters, a member of Iola City Council. 

“I’ve admired you guys from afar, your passion and the work you’ve put in,” said Symes.  

Peters echoed his support. “That’s why I’m here today. My goal is for the city to be a part of the discussion going forward.” 

Coffey County Recycling’s 24-foot trailer. Photo by PHOTO COURTESY OF MARCIA DAVIS

Strickler held up Coffey County’s program as the gold standard.  

The county picks up recycling in each of its cities twice a month. A two-person crew sorts the recyclables as they are collected from the curbside of residences and at businesses and places them in various bins on a 24-foot trailer that is pulled by a pickup truck. 

“Most of the people know by now how to sort their recyclables into different bins, saving the county crews time,” Strickler said. 

Initially, households were charged a monthly $5 fee to participate in the program. But when participation lagged, the county waived the fee.  

“Overnight, participation more than doubled,” Strickler said.

With a population of about 2,500, Burlington has more than 300 households participating in the recycling program. 

Coffey County also offers recycling for those who live in rural areas. The recycling trailer is brought to each of its four towns one Saturday a month to collect recyclables. 

“And of course, those in the city can take advantage of that Saturday collection if they missed putting their stuff out for the curbside pickup,” he said. 

Strickler pitched the idea that such a program could work in Iola by having its existing two-day-a-week trash pickup system devote one of those days to picking up recyclables.  

“You’ve got the crews. You’ve got the route,” he said. 

Council member Peters worried about tasking crews to sort the materials and where they would be hauled from there.  

Strickler said Coffey County would welcome the materials at its massive site that includes a sophisticated baler that compresses the materials into big blocks that are then transported to industries in Hutchinson, Kansas City and Topeka that recycle the materials.

For the last several years, Allen County has transported glass and plastic items collected by the Rotary program to Coffey County’s recycling site. 

Richard Zahn suggests a marketing plan is in order to better convince citizens recycling is the right thing to do.Photo by Susan Lynn / Iola Register

Commissioner Symes recognized the county’s role. 

“But that’s the extent of our contribution, so we’re probably gaining more than what we contribute,” he said. “There’s no doubt the county benefits from all the stuff you are keeping from going into the landfill.” 

The landfill is a money-maker for the county in that it accepts the refuse from other counties for a handsome fee.

WHERE TO GO from here is the challenge. 

Councilman Peters urged recycling enthusiasts to draw up a plan citing the specifics of Rotary’s current program and how it could be implemented by municipal crews.  

First off, a trailer would be needed to transport the necessary bins designated for paper, cardboard, plastics, glass, etc. 

As far as a private entity assuming the program to make money, that has not panned out. Shane Lamb of DeSoto initially expressed interest. Lamb operates a tire-shredding business at the site of the old Lehigh Cement Plant. His enthusiasm has since waned, Strickler said. 

“It’s a very unpredictable business,” Strickler said about recycling. “When we started out, cardboard fetched $20 a ton. Then it got up to $200 a ton. Now, it’s somewhere in-between.” 

Currently, local collection of cardboard brings in about $3,000 a month. 

“Recycling isn’t about making money. It’s about doing the right thing,” Strickler said. 

Richard Zahn suggested the best way forward is to hire a marketing firm to promote the benefits of recycling and to state a vision of what a local program would look like. 

 Zahn is skeptical that most citizens appreciate its benefits, and that education is necessary. 

The recycling of cardboard, especially, is critical. 

“If you look at what’s filling up our landfill, 70 to 80 percent of it is cardboard,” Zahn said.  

Gary McIntosh, a former city council member and county commissioner, said that when enough people get on board, change can happen. 

McIntosh gave two examples. 

“When I was a kid growing up in Linn County, we got rid of our trash by throwing it in the ditch.  

“And not so long ago, public buildings were off limits to the handicapped. Why? The accommodations cost too damn much.  

“But the laws changed because it was the right thing to do. I think most people have brains enough to know recycling is the right thing to do as well,” McIntosh said. 

Area citizens met to discuss recycling’s future at the Iola Public Library. Included are Sharon Moreland, Robin Griffin-Lohman, Karen and Jim Gilpin, Janie Works, Damaris Kunkler, Gary McIntosh, Mark Peters, Bruce Symes, Steve Strickler, Larry Manes, Richard Zahn, Dan and Marcia Davis. Photo by Susan Lynn

Dan Davis said a city’s recycling efforts can be a marketing tool. 

“Recycling is a quality-of-life thing that makes people want to live here,” he said. “It’s going to impact people because it shows we’re a community that’s going to do things right.” 

Time is of essence, participants agreed. 

For one, the amount of trash going into the county landfill will increase significantly as of Monday with the local recycling coming to an end. 

And second, city and county officials start looking at their fiscal budgets well in advance.  

“The budget for 2022 is already locked in,” said Peters. “But we’re going to be talking about the next budget to come in May or June. Now is the time to talk with officials about your hopes for recycling,” he said. 

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