Illegal dumping is often overwhelming, not only in quantity, but also in how it affects people who are forced to live around it.
By Sarah Benal, Heartland Conservation Alliance
There is a big difference between illegal dumping and littering. Littering is often simply scattered articles of trash, creating clutter in our outdoor space and easily fixed with some small effort. Illegal dumping is the systemic disposal of large quantities of trash, heavy materials, or chemicals in one location, over and over without legal permission.
Illegal dumping has serious impacts on a person’s emotional and physical health. It harms the environment and unfairly impacts neighborhoods in Kansas City who must deal with the toxic repercussions of piles of dumping over time. Efforts have been made by community leaders, neighborhoods, and conservation groups to stop illegal dumping, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
“Illegal dumping has always been an issue and not just in the urban area,” said Dina Newman, the director of the UMKC Center for Neighborhoods. “As a child living in a somewhat rural town in Kansas, I remember seeing areas where people would dump off old furniture, tires, and junk in underutilized areas of town. It seems as though in the last few years have we seen such an increase in the urban core.”
In early 2020, Heartland Conservation Alliance followed Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) Solid Waste Management District’s lead and joined the UMKC Center for Neighborhoods and other community leaders to raise awareness about the problem of illegal dumping. Even though the group focuses on the Kansas City region, members knew the effort would require insight from people all over the country to find an impactful way that might bring change.
“We thought it was time to bring our community members and city leaders to the table to come up with real solutions to this pervasive problem,” explained Nadja Karpilow, an environmental planner at MARC’s Solid Waste Management District, who acknowledges that the group was not naive and knew it would be a difficult topic to tackle. “Many people attended the community listening sessions and presentations that we hosted and everyone we talked to agreed that it was a problem worth solving. Clean up events can be helpful but are not sustainable: we need solutions that prevent people from dumping in the first place.”
Neighborhoods such as Dunbar have experienced illegal dumping as a chronic issue for many years. Due to the long-term disinvestment in the neighborhood, multiple dead end streets, vacant lots and general inattention, the dumping problem has grown substantially worse over the last 20 years. Kathy Persley, the president of the Heart of the City Neighborhood Association, emphasized that every resident in Kansas City is responsible for stopping illegal dumping, even when the problem is “not in my neighborhood.” Dumping impacts waterways, physical and mental health, impedes economic development, limits opportunities for new housing and outdoor enjoyment. Because of that, the impacts of illegal dumping affect the health and well-being of everyone.
The City of Kansas City Public Works Department dumpster program allows for neighborhoods to order a dumpster for community clean up events. The city will place the dumpster and then empty it for a minimal cost to the neighborhood. The city also has an app where residents can upload photographs and report illegal dumping, and gives away blue bags for litter clean-ups.
The Northeast Chamber of Commerce is working on a program to reduce illegal dumping in four alleyways. To date, the alleyway near Bales and Independence Avenue has experienced significantly less dumping since it was improved with plantings, mulch, lighting, and murals. Persley also elaborated on recent city efforts to address trash and dumping along Leeds Trafficway, Stadium Drive and 35th Street/35th Terrace, which have significantly reduced the amount of trash in the community. The illegal dumping inspectors patrol the area and KC Solid Waste is promptly removing large piles of waste.
Neighborhoods and community organizations are not ignoring the issue, and are employing different methods to address illegal dumping. Some neighborhoods do continue to organize large-scale clean ups, while others are organizing themselves within their communities and driving around the neighborhood loading up stuff in pick-up trucks and disposing it in the proper manner.
The issue remains, however, that there is little incentive for those who are committing the illegal dumping to stop. And unfortunately all these efforts still don’t address the root cause of illegal dumping specifically. While low-cost dumpsters, free resources, and Bales and Independence Avenue are successes, we know that the dumping will occur somewhere else. In 2022 the city published an internal audit report on illegal dumping which raised awareness about the problem. The report states that response times were not calculated due to “incomplete data.” Being able to collect reliable response times are an important component to address some of the underlying systemic problems connected to illegal dumping because they “provide accountability to the public, focus efforts on residents’ needs, and can be used to inform management decisions about use of resources.”
“I think the answer to reducing illegal dumping is sharing information,” said Persley, “and working toward an increased awareness of the long-term impact, showing others how to share information and increased visibility of environmental advocates in most-impacted communities.” To do this, Heart of the City Neighborhood Association has developed a comprehensive conservation plan that includes a community education component aimed at reducing waste and how to report illegal dumping.
After working with the illegal dumping group members, Karpilow believes illegal dumping is a multi-faceted problem and requires collaboration among all of us – together we need to utilize our talents, skills, and resources to reduce illegal dumping.
“What I think is needed to reduce illegal dumping in our region is for stronger enforcement, improved infrastructure, education, and most importantly: buy-in from decision makers. We need to effectively influence leaders to prioritize this important public health issue.” Karpilow said.
On Saturday, February 25 from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Heartland Conservation Alliance is hosting a clean up to address illegal dumping on Blue River Road. Those interested can learn more and sign up on the event page.
This story was originally published by the Heartland Conservation Alliance, an urban land trust working to protect our region’s natural resources.