A substantial chunk of the trash coming to Marshall County Landfill could have been recycled, mirroring a statewide trend.
But Joe Robertson, manager at the landfill, said that is not necessarily cause for alarm. The Marshalltown service area still has per capita participation in the recycling program that is among the highest in the state.
In 2012, more than 40 tons of garbage made its way to the landfill. And while that might seem like a lot, Robertson said the amount of trash coming in hasn't significantly increased or decreased in recent years despite the increase in recycling efforts.
A large bale of tin is shown here at Mid-Iowa Workshop in Marshalltown. Across the state, items that could be recycled are ending up in landfills.
A study by IowaWatch.org shows that this trend holds true across the state as well. Yearly landfill tonnage reports from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources show no significant change in landfill tonnage over the past decade.
Pam Blake, director of recycling and solid waste education, said many people throw away garbage that could be recycled because they are unaware it is recyclable. Her job is to educate people on how to sort their waste. For instance, tin cans must have their labels removed while labels can be left on plastic and glass bottles.
"There is always room for improvement when it comes to recycling," she said. "People might be surprised that they put in the garbage items that they could recycle."
The Marshalltown City Code mandates that citizens recycle and stipulates that trash haulers may not pick up garbage with mixed items. Penalties for violating this section of the code include a $100 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
The DNR charges the landfill for each ton of trash it accepts. In the most recent quarterly assessment, the Marshall County Landfill paid $4.75 per ton. However, only $3.30 of that money goes to the DNR. The remaining can be used in-house provided it goes to fund the local recycling program or repair equipment or other operational costs.
Since those tonnage fees go to fund recycling programs across the state, in order to inject money into recycling programs, citizens need to produce more garbage that goes to the landfill, creating a bit of a funding paradox.
The city does not pick up recycling. Trash service providers retrieve recyclables and haul them to Mid-Iowa Workshop, 909 S. 14th Ave., where they are processed and sold to brokers that in turn sell them to manufacturers.
Rich Byers, president and CEO of Mid-Iowa Workshop, said the system works great and that the center sees much less recycled material in the past decade than it did 15 to 20 years ago.
Randy Wetmore, city administrator, said the topic of the city providing recycling came up in 2010, but the council opted to leave the system the way it is.
Robertson said he sees the problem more as an issue of consumption. As people recycle, they realize how much waste they are producing, which hopefully leads them to waste less.
Using recycled materials is also a concern.
"Just saving something out of the garbage doesn't recycle it," Robertson said. "You have to have someone that has a need and use for that product."
The market for recycled material often fluctuates, sometimes drastically depending on legislation and the type of product in question, Byers said.
Over the years, as recycling has increased, Robertson said he has noticed an increase in the percent of clear plastic film among the garbage that comes to the landfill. With paper and cardboard being recycled more often, those materials are not as prevalent, which makes it harder to compact the trash. The machinery used to compact trash has to work harder to ensure non-recyclable materials are not taking up more room in the landfill, burning more fuel. Many people don't likely consider that cost, he said.
Robertson said there is no immediate plan to overhaul operations at the landfill, saying he doesn't see a serious problem.