Osgerby: A better way to manage Iowa City's waste

BY PAUL OSGERBY | APRIL 06, 2015 5:00 AM

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The Iowa City Landfill & Recycling broke out in flames this past weekend, and authorities have yet to determine the cause. They have said have said this instance is under control and should be cleared by today.

However, this isn’t about the fire itself so much as the irresponsibility of our waste management.

Because of the high volume of landfill waste, especially in a college town such as Iowa City, sometimes it seems like a necessity. Apartments do not have recycling containers, and there are inherent problems attached to properly sorting applicable materials. These factors make a landfill the viable option if the short-term.

As evidenced by this weekend’s fire, that is not always the case. Iowa City had a similar instance in 2012, when flames caused nearly $4 million in damage, and it burned for nearly two weeks. Perhaps we do not have as great of a control of waste management as we thought.

Landfills cause permanent impacts on our environment. Methane gas, the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the United States, is a volatile substance that is highly flammable, and 18 percent of those gases are from landfills, according the EPA.

It is no surprise that Fire Department has kept largely quiet on the origin of the fire and estimated clearance.

Even with all the protocols in place, such as layers of leachate and soil, landfills permanently change the environments surrounding our communities. One would think that with a university right down the street, we would have more sustainable options in our future.

Yet we still rely on trash solutions such as landfills. Down the highway in Ames, officials have an interesting approach set in place.

Citizens of the town do not need to sort trash, and their local facility sorts recyclable material. Up to 75 percent of applicable material is then properly recycled while the rest is sent to a regional landfill.

The most interesting aspect, though, is that the non-recyclable waste is burned to generate power across the town. Waste-to-energy plus recycling has proven incredibly valuable to the Ames community.

This isn’t a foreign concept. In Göteborg, Sweden, the same practice is used to generate heat across the entire region of the country. In fact, it accepts waste from outside of the locality as a means of its efficiency.

Why can’t Iowa City adopt this system of waste management?

We are supposed to live in a town that is traditionally much more liberal than the rest of the state. However, we still depend on trash measures that are outdated. Furthermore, it poses a calculated risk of methane fires, such as this most recent outbreak.

In order to have a sustainable future, I think our community requires practices that equal to the task. Landfills are only a temporal solution, while taking a nod from our college rivals could prove to the most cost-effective and environmentally minded approach, especially for a town of this size.

Our current practices are shortsighted and prone to outbreaks of fire. Why can’t we change that? Sure, it might not be cheap initially, but we could theoretically set aside some money from local projects such as the Riverfront Crossings to implement something similar to Ames or Göteborg.

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