Johnson County government has long been considered an environmental leader in its work to reduce its carbon footprint by building energy efficient buildings, developing a sustainability plan and acquiring fuel-efficient vehicles.
But county government, like the state of Kansas, has lagged behind many cities and states when it comes to recycling yard waste.
“You look nationally, Johnson County likes to think we are the leaders, but we are so far behind,” said Dennis Patton, horticulturist for Johnson County K-State Research and Extension. “We are not cutting edge in that.”
In a leafy, yard-conscious suburb like Johnson County, homeowners generate thousands of tons of grass clippings, leaves and tree branches. Every time we mow, trim, rake, we create yard waste. Until this year, many of us collected it in plastic bags and set it on the curb for transport to the landfill.
Residents have gotten wise to the environmental disaster that is yard waste. In pockets throughout the county, folks are cutting down on how much of that waste ends up buried in a landfill by turning it into what gardeners like Prairie Village resident Bud Smith calls “black gold.”
“When you are starting a new garden, that old clay loves to get together with some good homemade compost,” Smith said. “It produces great flowers and vegetables.”
In recent years, county government has gotten wise to composting, too. But the county’s road to recycling yard waste has been rocky. Controversy has followed at every turn, including a new twist that has left Johnson County commissioners perplexed at the actions of county managers who work for them.
Worried that the county’s largest landfill was running out of space, the Johnson County Commission spent years crafting a policy that would require residents to separate yard waste into paper bags for curbside pickup by their trash hauler, which would then be responsible for getting it composted. The idea was to prevent thousands of tons of yard waste from going into the Shawnee landfill owned and operated by Deffenbaugh Industries.
As many as six years ago, county leaders began informing residents that their vegetative refuse would eventually be separated from their trash.
It would no longer be allowed in the landfill.
Johnson County commissioners told residents the new trash and recycling regulations were necessary because the landfill was running out of space. Urgent action was needed. By 2027, the landfill was expected to be full.
The regulations required everyone to pay trash haulers to pick up their separated yard waste even if they did not have any or did their own composting. Residents would have to spend more time separating the waste and buying paper bags.
Even more controversial for some was the question of whether the county had the right to regulate the landfill — or whether it’s the state’s right.
The regulations also were controversial because of shifting information about the urgent need to ban yard waste from going into the landfill.
So controversial were the new rules that the policy was unveiled two years ago but not implemented until this past January. The county spent thousands of dollars educating residents about the need to separate yard waste from trash and explaining how to do it.
The regulations forbid landfill operators from putting the yard waste in the landfill. That leaves them to compost it and sell it or give it away. (Yard waste is valuable as compost, in demand by landscape companies, farmers and home gardeners as a fertilizer and soil additive.)
But The Kansas City Star has learned that county staffers — unbeknownst to their elected bosses — allowed Deffenbaugh to put composted yard waste in the landfill. Johnson County staff told The Star they never reported to elected officials or residents that they gave Deffenbaugh that OK last year before the rules were implemented.
Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said he learned of the issue last week and is still trying to understand why commissioners weren’t informed.
“Looking back, this issue did not come before the commission for discussion,” Eilert said. “It should have. I think it is a legitimate discussion of what happens if you have surplus composting material.”
Despite that, he said, “The important point has to be reducing volume in the landfill. That was the objective and that still is the objective, absolutely.”
Betsy Betros, director of Johnson County environmental services, said staff granted Deffenbaugh the approval so the landfill operator could use the compost to cover trash.
County staff had several discussions after Deffenbaugh officials made the request and finally concluded that compost is no longer yard waste.
“This is not illegal,” Betros said. “Basically we can’t regulate what (Deffenbaugh does) with the compost. It is now a product. It is no longer yard waste, it is compost.”
But others disagree that compost is not lawn waste, including states that have banned yard waste from landfills for years.
About 25 states have prohibitions against yard waste in landfills. While Kansas does not have a statewide policy, Missouri has banned yard waste from landfills for two decades.
In Missouri, compost is yard waste, said spokeswoman Renee Bungart for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“Part of the reason is we want to put it back into productive use,” Bungart said. “In general though, they don’t want it to go into the landfill because that would circumvent the ban on yard waste.
“And compost is yard waste,” Bungart said.
Deffenbaugh officials said they asked to be allowed to put compost in their landfill because they wanted to use it as filler. Kansas law requires landfill operators to put layers of filler dirt on top of trash in each cell throughout the landfill. Usually landfill operators use poor quality dirt, clay or shale, that has been dug up from their landfill as the filler.
Jim Murray, general manager of Deffenbaugh, and Tom Coffman, senior vice president, said the company, which has been doing a small amount of composting for several years, supports composting.
“This is just the beginning of this process,” Coffman said. “We are going to create a material that we can begin marketing and selling. …We hope to eventually close the loop by you buying back your own yard waste (compost) and then growing more yard waste.”
Some commissioners are questioning why they were not informed of the staff’s decision to allow the compost in the landfill.
“I think everybody took it on good faith that the yard waste wasn’t going to be put in the landfill because that’s the way the regulation was written,” said Commissioner Jason Osterhaus, the commission’s liaison to Deffenbaugh. “It doesn’t sit well with me.”
The information surprised Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, who said he planned to find out why county staff did not discuss it with the commission.
“If what you are saying is true, it’s disappointing if staff would do that without permission,” Ashcraft said. “It’s a very unfortunate avenue for the staff to pursue.”
Commissioner Ed Peterson said the county’s authority to forbid Deffenbaugh from using the compost in its landfill was limited because of the question of whether the state, not the county, has the authority to regulate the landfill.
“It’s difficult for the county to do more than what’s done right now,” Peterson said. “It was my expectation that more altruistic uses would be found for the compost. It would continue to be our hope to find good constructive uses for the compost.”
Deffenbaugh says that it is cooperating with the county’s rules.
“We are playing along,” Coffman said.
The issue has upset both true believers in government-regulated yard waste collection and non-believers.
Mark Read, who helped the Shawnee Mission School District begin its food composting program, said compost is a valuable resource that should be producing a revenue stream. Instead residents have been tricked.
“Here you are, dutifully tying up your twigs and paying to have (Deffenbaugh) come pick it up,” said Read, who has toured Deffenbaugh’s composting operation. “And it’s going into the landfill.”
State Rep. Amanda Grosserode, a Lenexa Republican, fought the county’s new yard waste regulations in the state Legislature this year because she thinks only the state has the right to regulate landfills whose business usually crosses county lines. The bill passed out of the Kansas House but never got out of a Senate committee.
In light of Deffenbaugh’s use of compost in the landfill, she plans to revive the bill when the Legislature is back in session in January, she said.
“The original restrictions say no yard waste in landfills regardless of what form it’s in,” Grosserode said.
Deffenbaugh’s use of the compost is only the latest issue in the trash wars.
Dennis Batliner, a Johnson County resident who opposes the government regulations, says his goal is to get the regulations rescinded. To that end, he is researching the issue and has testified at a state legislative hearing.
“Everything that the public has been told about this issue is false except there is a landfill located in Johnson County,” Batliner said. “That’s how bad this is.”
In March 2011, the Shawnee City Council voted to allow Deffenbaugh to expand the landfill. Meanwhile, several factors combined to extend the landfill’s life — the expansion approved in 2011; continued recycling efforts by residents; a decreased amount of trash heading to the landfill; and the commission’s impending rules, which prevent thousands of tons of yard waste from ending up in the dump. Suddenly, the landfill was not expected to close until 2043, up from 2027.
Naysayers were quick to say yard waste regulations were not needed.
Then last December, just a couple of weeks before the regulations would be implemented, elected officials learned the ban did not apply to Deffenbaugh’s customers in Wyandotte County and Edwardsville because of a separate contract the operator had with those governments. Those contracts don’t expire until next year.
County leaders met with upset officials from Johnson County cities who said it was unfair for Johnson County residents to be held to different standards. During a county government meeting the next day, commissioners also expressed frustration.
Some commissioners wanted to put a hold on the rules.
But Commissioner Peterson said it was important for the commission “to keep our eye on the goal.”
“Our goal is to try to extend the life of the landfill as long as possible,” Peterson said at the time.
In a 4-3 vote, the commission agreed to suspend the yard waste regulations involving Wyandotte County and Edwardsville until their contracts with Deffenbaugh expire in July 2013.
After the regulations were put in place this year, Rep. Grosserode filed the bill to overturn them because of complaints from her constituents. A public hearing on her bill generated much discussion about whether a county had the authority to regulate a regional landfill.
Officials from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment testified against the county, saying Johnson County should not have the authority to regulate the landfill.
“The precedent of what Johnson County set was that a county could unilaterally put into place regulations that would have the effect of regulating other counties,” said Bill Bider, director of the department’s waste management bureau. “It was that precedent that concerned our Legislature.”
But Commissioners Eilert and Peterson said the county had to act because the state had failed to take on the critical issue of dumps that are overflowing with trash.
“We couldn’t get KDHE to move off the dime,” Eilert said.
Bider said the issue is complicated because the regions west of Topeka are semi-arid and doesn’t generate a lot of yard waste. Some landfills have 500 years of life left.
Bider said his agency is launching a study to see if the yard waste issue can be addressed regionally.
“Then we’ll let the Legislature decide if the benefit is worth a law,” he said.
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For trash haulers and landfill operators, turning yard waste into compost is an expensive enterprise.
“There is a big cost to get it to the useful stage,” said J.R. Pesek, owner of Town and Country, a trash hauler that works in both Johnson County and Missouri. “Composting takes hundreds of thousands of dollars of machinery and weeks” to make.
Pesek said his company has been selling compost in bulk to stores and customers for years. Last year it started bagging it for sale.
At Missouri landfills, if haulers mix trash and grass clippings, a landfill operator can face a stiff penalty, Pesek said. The operator will actually make the hauler pick up the trash and take it away.
“They’re very brutal about that on the Missouri side,” he said.
Several local composting sites are located on the Missouri side of the metro area, including Missouri Organic, which began business in 1992 about the time the state ban was put in place.
At a site near the sports stadiums stand piles of finished compost and mulch. The soil is dark and fine and has a musky smell.
Kevin Anderson, son of the founder and vice president, shows off another site outside Liberty where the compost is cooked. It has a strong odor of barnyard because it includes food waste, but because it’s located on 1,700 acres, no one is around to smell it.
The compost is piled in long rows under the blazing sun, heat rays rising up from them. A giant machine known simply as a compost turner slowly cuts through a row, stirring the baking materials and providing one of the fuels for cooking — oxygen.
“This is like a recipe to make a cake,” Anderson said. “The temperature has to be right. We’re putting temperature probes in all the time.”
Another pile being readied for the compost heap nearby is much more colorful, with squashes, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, grapes and potatoes. The food wastes come in from cafeterias such as Hallmark Cards, H&R Block and area hospitals as well as grocery stores and restaurants.
Anderson shows off another giant machine, a screener that removes contaminants such as plastics and cans. Those contaminants ruin compost because no one wants to spread pollutants on their land, he said.
“Plastics are our worst nightmare,” Anderson said.
The business started by his father, originally a chimney sweep, has been good for his family and for the community, Anderson said. It provides developers, builders, farmers and gardeners with necessary dirt and mulch and has kept untold tons of yard waste from landfills.
“You are taking a waste and putting it back into something someone is trying to accomplish,” Anderson said. “This is a resource that doesn’t have to go in a landfill. It’s better than putting it into some hole.”
Deffenbaugh does offer free compost to the public. But on a recent tour, it was full of contaminants, with large pieces of plastic and other trash, Read said.
“No one wanted to go near it,” Read said. “It looked like hazardous waste.”
On a separate tour, The Kansas City Star observed the same problem.
During that tour, Murray and Coffman pointed to the large screener sitting off to the side of the compost piles.
The screener, which had seen better days, had a flat tire. It had not been used much recently because the compost isn’t being sold, they said. But in the future when the company decides to market the compost, it will be cleaned, they said.
“I’m not telling you it is market-ready material right now, but that is our goal,” Coffman said. “That is what we are shooting for.”
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Composting is not new. It’s been done for centuries.
Many homeowners already compost their yard waste in their backyards. Some people pile their compost in a corner of their yards. Others use a composting bin.
Composters say that it’s important to mix the green vegetation — the grass clippings — with brown — the leaves. Food scraps, but no dairy or meats, can be added.
Water also is needed.
What happens next is Mother Nature at work, said Smith, the Prairie Village composter.
The center of the pile begins cooking. “We like to see the center cooking around 120 to 140 degrees,” he said.
The pile needs to be sifted every few days to allow in oxygen.
Eventually over several weeks to three months, the mixture breaks down into a dark-looking soil.
“It’s a fabulous resource,” said Adele Wilcoxen of Overland Park, who also composts. “Nothing leaves our lot now except for the sticks. Why pay $5 a bag (for fertilizer) when you can get it for free?”
Wilcoxen, an avid gardener, and her husband live on a corner lot, and in fall the leaves from their trees and their neighbors’ trees blanket their yard.
A few years ago Wilcoxen decided to try composting. But raking the leaves and then running over them with an electric mower to chop up the leaves into little pieces took a lot of time.
One Christmas she got a more powerful gas mower to be used strictly for mulching.
“I jumped up and down,” Wilcoxen said. “It’s one of the best Christmas presents I ever got.”
She uses the mower not only on leaves but also on household materials including eggs, egg cartons, coffee grinds, veggie matter, potato peels, carrots and material she pulls out of the garden.
Wilcoxen said she has a good feeling when she sees the thermometer needle moving upward or steam rising from little chimneys on the compost pile in the winter.
“It’s just thrilling,” Wilcoxen said.
To reach Karen Dillon, call 816-234-4430 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.