Tonya Davis lingers at a stop sign just east of where the Paseo meets 49th Street, looking left and right for lawbreakers. They're easy to spot on this cloudy Friday morning. Davis, a longtime employee in the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Works Department, has the heat cranked up to Saharan temperatures, but her voice is cold.
"See? Just from right here, you see a violation there," she says, pointing down the block at a 4-foot-high junk pile atop old carpet and stacked high with busted furniture and several televisions dripping electronic guts.
"And there's tires up here," she says, pointing up the block, where discarded auto parts are set next to open cardboard boxes coughing up old baby clothes.
"That's trash that's not prepared properly," she says, still idling at the intersection, pointing to another mound of debris languishing at the curb. "And look — there's just loose litter everywhere. You can literally, on one street, look on both sides and see multiple violations."
Davis is part of Kansas City's new campaign to cite and fine residents who violate city garbage ordinances. But this is only the front line of a larger battle.
At City Hall, trash is consistently among the top three reasons that citizens call 311. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Mark Funkhouser told Davis' department, "I hear more about trash than I ever imagined." He's not the only one. The Metropolitan Mayors' Caucus — a regional council of city leaders convened by Funkhouser — has made trash its primary issue to tackle.
As Davis continues to follow this Friday trash-collection route, she cruises through Brookside, where trash bags have neatly been set next to blue recycling bins. Block after block goes by without a violation. On a well-groomed street, she backs up to make way for a collection truck painted with the Deffenbaugh Industries logo. A single worker drops from the back, darts from side to side, and tosses the paper and cardboard into the back of the creeping machine. A few moments later, another truck rumbles through, this one without the Deffenbaugh name. Two men in bright-yellow vests chat as they work opposite sides of the street and hoist trash bags into the mouth of their compactor.
This division of labor plays out across the city.
Deffenbaugh picks up the recycling at every home but hauls trash from only 60 percent of Kansas City's households. The other 40 percent is handled by city crews. But new pressures are emerging. Landfill space is shrinking fast. And while the city can barely afford to keep police officers on the street, Deffenbaugh, now owned by a distant Swiss company, is raising its prices.
Dennis Gagnon, a spokesman for Public Works, is along for Davis' ride. The two agree that the city does a more efficient job of dealing with residents' garbage, and the data back them up. The problem is, the city has relied on Deffenbaugh for 35 years.
"Sometimes a vendor has you in a corner," Gagnon says.
Kansas City is hoping to elbow its way out of the company's grasp — and make some money doing it.
The Deffenbaugh trash empire spreads across 850 acres at the edge of Shawnee. You can just glimpse the property from Interstate 435 — the flash of a dump truck cresting a hill, a ring of forest-green Dumpsters at the edge of a field.
At the entrance to the Johnson County Landfill, hulking trash trucks move along a steep, curving road. Past small structures that look like tollbooths, the pavement turns to rutted dirt. The face of the landfill, where the newest trash is folded into the earth, is tucked away, past a ring of metal Dumpsters — hundreds of green containers heaped in disarray like a huge train derailed. It's past the long gray warehouses where trucks are fueled and serviced and past the parking lot where some of the company's 450 vehicles rest.