Getting public input on municipal projects is generally a good idea, but sometimes city officials might shy away from it for a variety of reasons. With waste and recycling, the officials we spoke to said community engagement is the key to success.
In the city of Joplin, Mo., officials were looking to develop a master plan for solid waste, recycling and yard waste. They hired a consulting engineering firm — Burns & McDonnell — to assist with the master plan.
Lynden Lawson, assistant public works director over operations, explained there were several services involved — trash collection and a recycling center — that they didn’t think was working well.
“There are a couple of issues; we have a recycling center, but it’s not a good place as it doesn’t meet all the needs. We’ve got a good flow, but they’re not able to do certain things in there,” he said.
Part of the master plan includes what that recycling center will look like in the future. Officials would like to see a place where residents could drop brush off for mulch and also be able to pick up mulch if they needed it. Lawson said the city creates windrows of the leaves that it picks up every year and rolls them out every three years as compost, so it would like to create an area where residents could come and get compost for their gardens.
He said the city also has a transfer station that a different company other than the one who has the trash contract operates. The city subsidizes the cost to keep the price down for residents who want to drop off bulky items like old furniture.
“We negotiated the cost to keep the prices low so they’ll be more apt to do it, and overall, we’ll have less of a dumping issue,” he said.
Julie Davis, senior environmental scientist with Burns & McDonnell, said the company believes engaging communities is crucial.
“In all the important public services, if it touches the public, it won’t be successful unless there’s public buy-in,” she said. “We want to ensure that our plans are not only fiscally responsible but also environmentally responsible and tolerable by the community.”
She said what they did in Joplin is not unique to Joplin but a model that the company encourages for all public entities. In Joplin, Davis said the city contracted with one service provider for trash only. The provider offered recycling but on an optional subscription basis, not a service provided to all.
Joplin and Burns & McDonnell have held one open house for the public so far, and another one will be coming. Davis said in the first round, the goal was to get the public’s input about what they’re interested in, what services need changing, how much they’d be willing to pay and how satisfied they are with the current services.
“In conjunction with the open house, we had online surveys, so if they couldn’t make an open house, they had access to the same information,” she said.
About 20 people attended the open house, “which was a low turnout, but we had about 540 respond online so some may not have attended because they already responded online,” according to Davis.
She added, “I’ve been doing this a long time, and there’s nothing controversial in Joplin’s plan — people tend to show up more when they’re not happy.”
The city was responsible for getting the word out, and Davis said officials advertised in local newspapers with a QR code so they could track that they received 140 responses from the local newspaper. Joplin also has an active social media presence and promoted the open house and the online survey on those platforms. It also printed flyers and placed them in public places.
The most successful of those communication efforts, according to Davis, was the digital surveys.
“Dealing with COVID the past two years, some people have grown complacent about getting out and also because it’s not too controversial it didn’t motivate people to show up,” she said, adding, “I’m very pleased that with a community the size of Joplin, we’ve gotten the results we did.”
Those responses also came from a variety of different households and sizes of households — not just from those supportive of recycling, according to Davis. Despite the lower attendance of the open house, Davis still felt it was a good thing to do.
“With an in-person option, it’s a good opportunity to engage with those who may not be comfortable taking an online survey,” she said.
Those leading the open house could spend a longer time with those attending, educating them so they can make informed decisions.
Lawson agreed. “For the people who showed up in person, they could look at the information boards, voice their opinions and ask questions. It really helped out as we put the master plan together.”
But like Davis, Lawson is thrilled with the online responses.
There’s one part of the contract the city hasn’t delved into yet — the energy part. Lawson said the city has two wastewater treatment plants, and officials want to determine if they produce enough methane to use for heating purposes.
“We’re getting ready to delve into that,” he said, adding they’re waiting on that study before presenting any findings to the council.
Davis didn’t want to share all the results of the survey before the council saw it but said, “I can tell you that the community is in support of having recycling provided as part of the base level of service — meaning available for all.”
She said the online results showed residents are supportive of collecting separate yard waste — now it’s co-mingled with the trash — and they support curbside recycling. She said those who currently pay for a subscription for curbside recycling support it because they believe the price will decrease and those who don’t have it now because the price is high would recycle if the city included it in their base service.
Lawson said they’ve found solid waste can be “an emotional topic one way or the other” so engaging the public is important. He added providing education in the elementary and middle schools is also important so they can explain the environmental benefits of having less trash in the landfills and the benefits of being a clean city, so they understand why the city is doing what they’re doing.
Council Bluffs, Iowa, moving to automation
The city of Council Bluffs’ current waste collection contract will expire next year, so city officials began engaging the public about what the next contract should look like.
Solid Waste Superintendent Tony Fiala said, “We’re right in the middle of going out to bid for the waste collection service.”
He said the current contract ends June 30, 2023, and before the start of a new contract, city officials were building some ideas and decided to hold public outreach open houses.
“We set up poster board concepts with what the plans would be to get their opinions — will this system work best for the citizens of Council Bluffs? Is it most efficient? Most cost effective? We laid out the different ideas to see if the course we were headed on matched what residents were looking for.”
One of the biggest changes the city is looking for in the contract is moving away from the current manual collection system, which has a driver and two workers who get off the truck at every collection stop and manually pick up the trash.
“Our goal is to go out to bid for automatic collection. We’ll provide trash and yard waste carts, co-mingled for weekly collection and single-stream recycling carts for collection biweekly,” he said.
The base size of the carts is 95-96 gallons.
Fiala shared some results from the public outreach, noting the city provided questionnaires at the site with some directed questions. One concern residents expressed was about cleaner, alternative fuels for the collection vehicles. He said over 70% thought that was important.
When asked if that was something the city was aiming for, Fiala responded that alternative fuels are in the bid and would be considered in the scoring criteria.
He said 82% were concerned about providing options to recycle the carts they have now — the small 18-gallon recycling totes and their trash containers.
“Everything on the street now would be obsolete. Eighty-two percent felt it was very important to have a recycling option for the containers,” Fiala said.
Half of the respondents — two-to-one ratio — felt they would recycle under a single-stream system, but Fiala said officials expect it being higher than that once the program is in place.
When asked if residents were concerned about costs, he said, “It was a concern but not as high as I anticipated.”
Officials anticipated there would be a cost increase, but until the bids are in hand, they won’t know; however, it looks like it’ll be close.
“We updated 30 days ago, but a lot has changed since then,” he said.
The bids are due back on July 13.
Another negative concern for residents was the size of the carts. Some households won’t use containers that big; some were concerned that the elderly or disabled wouldn’t be able to maneuver them.
Because of those comments, officials changed the contract to add an offer of a smaller half-size cart for those who can’t handle the larger carts. He added they offered the larger carts for purchase since 1993, so many residents are already accustomed to them and the carts are on wheels.
Fiala said officials also took residents’ comments via voice mail and email. They cover 62,000 residents or 19,600 households with the trash service.
The city has a Facebook page with 12,000 followers so Fiala said that was a main communication venue for the city. It posted information about the meetings on its Facebook page and got the word out through local media — television and newspapers. The open houses were held two weeks apart on March 15 and 23. The city also has a recycling-waste collection app that residents can sign up for and get text message notifications about collection delays and more.
Fiala said attendance at the open houses was not the best, but the two dates chosen turned out to be two “beautiful early spring days.”
“So the nice weather was a bit of a challenge driving attendance — it didn’t work as well as I hoped,” Fiala said, but he added mailing out an annual solid waste guide to all customers has proved successful.
“One of the biggest impacts on everything we do is the annual solid waste guide that’s mailed out every spring before the start of yard waste season. It’s a 16-page booklet that contains all the information residents need — what they can dispose of, what they can’t, contact information, etc.”
The city also operates a recycling center, where it takes in all the curbside recycling plus the recycling from seven other drop-off sites. It also takes in tires, construction demolition material, brush and scrap metal.
“It’s a pretty comprehensive program. Every customer — 19,600 households — receives the guide, and the response is good to it. People like the guide. It’s a quick reference and includes a calendar,” he said.
The consolidated results were presented to the city council for review. Fiala said officials kept the council in the know throughout the process.
“Everyone’s on board — there’s buy-in,” he said.
The most important thing in his opinion is “timely, readily available messaging is the most important, especially on any program changes like texts for time delays in high heat days, local media, Facebook, city website, etc. As many venues as possible is key.”
Davis summed it up best. “A successful plan is one with community support. It helps elected officials by giving them backing on decisions that they’re doing what the community wants. With community input, those changes are more likely to be supported.”