Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Big Muddy used to be our landfill ... and other historic trash facts

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge Our rivers used to be our trash dumps
  • Our rivers used to be our trash dumps

When I asked officials at both the City of Kansas City and Deffenbaugh Industries when the private trash hauler first started collecting the Cowtown's garbage both sides had the same answer: They had no idea. All they knew was that the partnership had been in place so long that it pre-dated the institutional memory employed at City Hall and corporate headquarters.

Luckily, a staffer in the city clerk's office dug through some old boxes and found the first ordinance from 1972. Curious about what factors played into that decision, I went to the Kansas City Public Library to read up on the trash landscape back in the 1970s. Now, I'd rather spend hours with a microfilm machine and old newspaper clipping than surf the web and go glassy-eyed looking at blogs. So, yes, I probably went a little overboard indulging my inner history nerd.

But I did learn some interesting stuff. Here are three things -- one disgusting, one inspiring and one that proves good ideas really don't die -- you probably didn't know about one of the most expensive amenities you take for granted every single day.

Before there was Kemper Arena, the West Bottoms was home to the Kansas City Stockyards -- and the final resting place for much of the city's garbage. Back in the 1940s and early 1950s, Kansas City contracted with the George Bennett Construction company, which maintained a small army of hogs to devour the table scraps of our growing metropolis.

But that arrangement had its share of hiccups. In 1951, the Missouri River rose during a flood, drowning a sizable chunk of the garbage-gobbling animals. The following year, a pandemic of vascular exanthema (a bizarre enough ailment that Google isn't giving me much), hit the herd, forcing Bennett to sell many of the swine to avoid spreading the infection. Once the pack was reduced from 4,900 to just 900 animals, it became impossible to dispose of all the garbage via digestion. 

The alternative: tossing it into the Missouri River.

According to a 1952 story in The Kansas City Times:

Bennett estimated that eighty or ninety tons a day was the average amount of refuse to go into the Missouri. A huge grinder in which garbage is shredded prevents unsightly flotsam on the river, he continued, whereas refuse dumped directly into the water has a tendency to float.

Thankfully, the Kansas Board of Health didn't like the idea of dumping trash into the Kaw and Missouri rivers. In 1955, the city stopped feeding hogs and moved into the modern age of landfills.

***

That wasn't without its gag-inducing moments, either.

In 1970, the city ran out of money to cover the garbage in the municipal landfill on the East Side. For want of dirt, officials left acres of rotting garbage exposed to elements. By summer, the stench was so bad residents at a nearby trailer park physically blocked traffic to protest.

According to The Kansas City Star:

Mrs. Betty Murphy, spokesman for the group stepped in the road in front of the first truck arriving on site today and told the driver there would be no dumping at the landfill. "I don't care where you dump it," she told the driver. "You can take it out to the aristocratic neighborhoods and dump it, or take it to City Hall. We are tired of eating the city's garbage." The women stopped 12 trucks and the drivers all complied with their requests. Several drivers voiced support of the women's actions.

No arrests were made that day. Soon thereafter the city found funds to purchase 50,000 cubic yards of dirt to mask the aroma.

***

Local officials started thinking about ways to capture and reuse our waste as early as 1973. In a story headlined, "City Explores Disposal Ideas," the Star interviewed Alfred Beck, an operations engineer in the public works department at that time. He said Kansas City was studying new recycling projects, like one in St. Louis. But, according to the article, the prospects were grim.

Beck said that the city is trying to develop a system that can compete economically with the present system of dumping trash in landfills. ... He said none of the experimental projects being demonstrated currently had an operating cost as low as the cost of using landfills in Kansas City. ... Midwest Research Institute here recently studied 40 existing and emerging resource recovery systems for the President's Council on Environmental Quality. The report concluded that none of the systems is self-sustaining economically.

Still, in June 1973, a chemical company pitched a then-crazy idea to the City Council. For $3 million they could build a "separation plant" that would take in all KC's residential debris and sift through it for "salable waste." But even L.C. Bielicki, the company's vice president, didn't make the process sound all that appealing.

"When that first packet truck dumps all that slop in front of you, you know you have a problem," he said. The plastic bags contain paper, garbage, cans, bottles and other items. ... Mostly it is wet and runny. Despite the sale of reclaimed materials, Bielicki said, costs of operating the plant would be higher than the cost of running a landfill.

Three decades later, with landfill space finally running out, reclaiming "salable waste" is making a comeback -- and this time, it makes economic sense.

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