County’s 5-year plan for waste management addresses plastic bags, food waste

Johnson County commissioners this week have approved a five-year strategic plan for waste management.

Grocery store plastic bags won’t be taxed any time soon, but the county will likely look into it in the next couple of years because of the high level of public interest.

County commissioners on Thursday approved a five-year strategic plan for managing waste that goes into the landfill. Among the items in it was a feasibility study to find the best way to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags that end up in the landfill or, mistakenly, in the recycling bin.

Managing the loose plastic bags generated some of the most impassioned discussion among county staff and members of the Solid Waste Management Committee who wrote the recommendations, said Craig Wood, solid waste management coordinator. The committee is made up of local government leaders, environmental organizations and private waste-related businesses.

“There’s a definite passion for that,” Wood said. But since other cities across the country have used different ways to address the problem, Johnson County should do a study to find out what has been most successful, he said. The plan mentions taxes, fees or an outright ban.

Support for ‘banning the bag’

Johnson County’s new five-year strategic plan for waste management recommends a study to find the way to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the landfill or recycling bin.

A survey conducted as part of the study showed that 71 percent of county respondents support some type of “ban the bag” effort.

Single-use bags, like those at the grocery store, are problematic for trash collectors, Wood said. They are recyclable and can be used by companies that make them into other products. But people don’t always know that they shouldn’t be put into curbside bins because the bags get caught in the sorting equipment and create a danger for employees. People who want to recycle them will most likely need to find a place like a grocery store that collects only the bags, he said.

The five-year plan, required by the state, is a guide for how the county will manage its garbage in years to come. The last big rewrite was controversial because of negative reaction to new rules about yard waste composting. But that issue did not arise during the public hearing this year. Only one person spoke at the public hearing, and that was to encourage people to bring their own bags if they dislike plastic ones.

Recommendations this year took a cautious approach, leaning toward studies and cooperation with municipalities.

Wood said the goal is to reduce waste to extend the life of the county landfill in Shawnee. The landfill is expected to last until 2043, he said. With a growing population, the county health department would like to divert as much recyclable waste as possible, he said.

One recommendation that is already in the pipeline is for a new drop-off facility for household hazardous waste. Currently, county residents can take their paints, pesticides, pool chemicals and the like to a drop-off site in Olathe, or to the Philip J. Wittek Hazardous Materials Collection facility near Interstate 635 in Mission. Those sites are open year-round by appointment.

But the northern one, which was built in the 1990s, will have to close in the next couple of years because of construction at the nearby Nelson wastewater treatment plant, Wood said. The county estimates a new site would cost $3.8 million, and has put it into its long-range financial planning.

Although household hazardous waste makes up only a small part of what goes into the landfill, it creates a big environment impact if not handled properly, the study said.

Addressing food waste and composting

Christa McAuliffe Elementary recently received national recognition by the Environmental Protection Agency for doubling its composting efforts.

The plan also recommended the county take a close look at recycling volume in apartment complexes and at food recycling.

Recycling efforts have not necessarily kept up with the building boom in apartments, according to the study. Complex owners are not required in many cities to offer recycling, although some do provide a communal bin for those who want to do it. The exception is Lenexa, which requires haulers to collect an unlimited volume of recyclables as part of their basic fee, the study said.

Since the county has no authority to regulate recycling in city apartments, the plan recommends the county work with cities to encourage it and provide technical help.

Food waste accounts for about 23 percent of what goes into the landfill, according to a study done in 2015-16.

But there is no infrastructure in place to compost it, as the county does with yard waste. Therefore the county will continue to encourage food composting among school districts and green businesses.