Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources sampled trash from 10 landfills and five transfer stations across Iowa for a study published in December 2017, looking to answer the question, “What are Iowans landfilling?”

Tom Anderson, of the Iowa DNR’s Land Quality Bureau and the study’s project manager, has an answer to that question:

Money and jobs.

The Iowa City Landfill & Recycling Center on May 23, 2018. Iowa landfills like this one collectively took in more than 3 million tons of garbage in 2017. Credit: Lauren Wade/ IowaWatch

Iowans dumped $60.3 million worth of recyclable materials into the state’s landfills last year, an Iowa Statewide Waste Characterization Study published in December showed. Diverting those recyclables for reuse could create more than 6,000 manufacturing jobs, the study’s authors estimated.

“A family probably doesn’t realize how much is getting thrown away, it’s a little here and a little there you know, it’s not all of a sudden they see 1,500 dollar bills,” Anderson said.

This was the fourth study of its kind published by the DNR since 1998, and showed that 20 percent of what Iowans landfilled in 2017 was compostable food waste. That was 6.7 percentage points higher than in a 2011 study. Seven percent of the food thrown into landfills still was packaged.

Another 10 percent of materials entering Iowa’s landfills in 2017 — yard waste, for example — also could have been composted.

This was the first time Iowa’s study separated loose and unopened food waste.

The study also showed that 70 percent of the garbage entering Iowa landfills could be diverted.  While roughly one-third of the garbage going into landfills could be composted, close to another third could be recycled and 7 percent could be reused.

The 2017 Iowa Waste Characterization Study classified Waste based on the possibility for diversion. Credit: IowaWatch graphic by Lauren Wade. Source: Iowa Waste Characterization Study

Anderson said seeing these numbers was an eye opener. To date, success in reducing garbage dumped into landfills has not been measured in terms of lost market value or potential jobs, he said. Instead, landfills measured how much they reduce garbage intake.

“We’re trying to look at new ways of program success, what should be our measurements or metrics for all this data collection, should it be weight? Should it be dollar value? Should it be gas emission?” he asked.


Dan Nickey, Iowa Waste Reduction Center Credit: Courtesy of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center

Dan Nickey, director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, said convenience is the primary reason so much divertable material ends up in landfills.

The Iowa Waste Reduction Center is located at, but not affiliated with, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. It offers assistance to small businesses or entities looking to address issues of waste and environmental impact.

But real change starts with homeowners, Nickey said.

The Cedar Rapids Linn County Solid Waste Agency works with local businesses to make recycling and reuse options more available for Cedar Rapids-area residents. Its resource recovery center in Marion serves as a one-stop-shop for people looking to dispose of materials that might have life beyond a landfill, Joe Horaney, communications director for the solid waste agency, said.

The Resource Recovery Center at the Cedar Rapids Linn County Solid Waste Agency, located in Marion, Iowa. Credit: Courtesy Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency

The waste agency’s resource recovery building has a room called Free Paint, Cleaner’s, Etc. where items such as unused paint, cleaners, gardening materials such as fertilizer, pool chemicals and other items can be dropped off. The materials are available then to anyone free of charge.

“We try to make it as easy as possible for residents. If they’re willing to make the effort to recycle and divert we want to make that easy for them,” Horaney said.

Goodwill of the Heartland partners with the solid waste agency and leaves a bin at the resource recovery center where clean textile materials can be dropped off. Clothing that might have damage can be left as well and Goodwill sells them to places that will accept scraps for reuse, for example turning the materials into rags. The solid waste agency’s education director hands out pencils that have been made from old blue jeans, Horaney said.

Textiles and leather made up 4.1 percent of waste thrown into Iowa landfills in the 2017 report, but it had not increased since 2011.

Plastic retail shopping bags made up 0.9 percent of the waste going into Iowa landfills, up from 0.3 percent, the DNR’s 2011 study showed.


Jane Wilch, recycling coordinator for the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, said she was surprised when the 2017 study reported food waste entering the Iowa City landfill went up by 10 percent because the city has done a lot of programming and outreach to residents to encourage waste reduction since a 2011 study.

YouTube video

Video courtesy of City Channel 4– Iowa City in Focus

Wilch said people’s individual habits are key to waste reduction. “So we’re trying to really tackle, what’s the source of the problem: Are we buying too much food at the grocery store? … Are we eating out and we forget about our leftovers in the fridge?” she said.

Composting is the next best option for items such as egg shells, banana peels and pizza boxes.

Iowa City’s landfill has accepted since last year yard waste curbside for the compost site it has near the landfill. The program has taken off, as the compost already has reached capacity. The landfill can accept more residential compost, but no longer has room for more commercial users.

Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center’s composting site, located in Iowa City. The composting operation takes in food waste as well as other organics such as wood and yard waste. They are close to reaching their capacity. Credit: Lauren Wade/ IowaWatch

“Clearly, we are diverting quite a lot into our compost program, but there’s still a lot ending up in the landfill, and overall it’s just a larger consumption issue.” Wilch said.

Anderson said eating and consumer habits are a large contribution to the increase in Iowa’s food waste over the last five years.

“Whether they leave the leftover food for the restaurant to dispose of or whether they take it home and don’t eat it, it goes into the trash,” Anderson said.

The Iowa study’s results coincide with a recently published report by the National Restaurant Association that shows Americans are eating out more than ever before.

The state of the industry report, published in April 2017, estimated a 73 percent growth in restaurant sales from $586.7 billion in 2010 to a possible $798.7 billion by the end of 2017. The association has not released a final report on 2017.

Anderson said he wanted the study’s authors to physically separate packaged and loose food waste at landfills during their study so that they could better determine if cities, landfills and businesses would need de-packaging equipment that could help them compost on a larger scale.

Iowa does not have enough facilities equipped to handle all of its waste that could be composted, Anderson said. “Certainly, we can reduce it (waste) at the front end, but once it hits that waste stream, Iowa doesn’t have a whole lot of capacity to manage that,” he said.

Iowa has one large scale commercial composter, GreenRU, in Blairsburg.

GreenRU works with businesses such as hospitals, grocery stores and schools looking to divert food waste out of their trash.

GreenRU, located in Blairsburg, is the only commercial compost hauler available to Iowa, as well as other midwest areas. Credit: Courtesy of GreenRU

The company’s haulers provide services throughout Iowa, as well as in Nebraska, Minnesota and parts of Illinois and Missouri.

Scott Amendt, GreenRU’s sales and marketing representative, said some companies hesitate to use his firm’s services because they don’t recognize the need. GreenRU takes in about 40,000 tons of food waste each year.

Cost also can play a factor for businesses that don’t want to use GreenRU’s services. GreenRU charges by the haul, not by weight.

“Some of them think the service should be free. Well, we can’t run a truck up and down the road for zero dollars,” Amendt said.


Multiple landfills across Iowa have their own composting programs for residents. They include the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center, Cedar Rapids Linn County Solid Waste Agency and Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency.

Jennifer Trent of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center Credit: Courtesy of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center

But for industries serving food and generating waste on a larger scale than a family’s or individual’s kitchen, other resources are available, such as the Iowa Waste Reduction Center.

Jennifer Trent, waste reduction specialist for the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, said the center connects people and business with resources for curbing waste. For example, the center helps solve problems, such as why a compost pile isn’t decomposing as it should. That was the problem for a school district in the northeast Iowa town of Elkader.


When Ann Gritzner, a science teacher for the Elkader area’s Central Community School District in northeast Iowa, and her class conducted a feasibility test to determine if they could compost their cafeteria food waste, they found the school, with a certified enrollment of between 450 to 500 students, was throwing away 80 to 120 pounds of food a day.

Ann Gritzner, high school science teacher for the Central Community School District in Elkader. Credit: Courtesy of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center

“We actually took all of the food that was wasted at lunch and we dumped it on a tarp in the middle of the street, and after lunch the kids all walked by and saw how much food was wasted,” Gritzner, who has worked for the school since 1993, said.

The project began in the 2015-16 school year for a global science class, where students were challenged to make an environmental impact on the community.

Students now sort their lunch leftovers into different garbage bins, monitored by an adult. At the end of lunch, a student-led compost team hauls the compost waste to a manure spreader on the school campus. The compost is used on the school garden, and given away for donations to the local community.

The system hasn’t always been perfect, Jacob Jansen, 20, a Central graduate who worked on the project while in high school, said. The school quickly began running out of space at its compost site, which was too close to the Turkey River that runs through town. Additionally, the pile froze in the winter.

Jansen and his team contacted Trent, who had reached out to the school after seeing a television news story about the project. Jansen said Trent came to the school multiple times to help the class.

She helped the school obtain permission to use a city lot, giving the school more space so it could move the pile away from the river. She also helped determine that the pile kept freezing because of a lack of carbon, and put the school in contact with a farmer willing to donate corn stalks that could be added to the pile as a carbon source, Jansen said.

Now, three years into the project the Central Community School District is working to get a concrete pad to help turn and maintain the compost better, Gritzner said. The school’s

cafeteria is being remodeled and will have a more streamlined sorting area for students to separate their recyclable and compostable waste at the end of lunch. 

Gritzner said the composting project has brought greater awareness to waste to the whole school and not just her class. She said she hopes the school will be able to show others how to set up their own composting programs.

“I had a student come back when he had graduated, and he was a part of this program. He told me that since taking my classes that he would never look at trash the same again,” Gritzner said.


Jansen is now a sophomore at Loras College in Dubuque, double majoring in politics and sociology. He said he plans to get his masters in environmental studies and is taking on composting on a larger scale. 

Jacob Jansen, 20, Sophmore at Loras College in Dubuque Credit: Courtesy of Loras College Athletics

Jansen is working on a proposal to compost waste from Loras’ dining halls. He has conducted a feasibility study and got the student signatures necessary to get the proposal before Loras’ board of regents, something he hopes to do by this summer.

Loras’ dining halls compost their food preparation waste at a Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency facility. But the food scraps and extra food prepared, which Jansen estimated in a feasibility study at between 33,000 to 40,000 pounds a year, is too much for the local composter.

“What’s really the bulk of our food waste is coming from the plates of students. It’s a buffet style,” Jansen said, referring to Loras’ lunchroom. “People kind of just take as much as they want and if they don’t want to eat it they just dump it.”

Jansen is working to draw awareness to the amount of wasted food being sent to the landfill. On Feb. 27, he hosted a food waste discussion panel to educate students, faculty and staff on the issue of food waste entering landfills. Jennifer Trent was a panelist for the discussion.

“When we did the food waste audit there were kids that were like, ‘Wow, are you kidding me? We waste this much food?’ and there were people that were like, ‘Well, I ate all the food on my plate.’ And it’s like that’s good you know, keep doing that.” Jansen said. “But then there’s the kids that are like, ‘I don’t care, like, I’m paying for this, I’m just going to waste the food.’ They don’t see the big picture.”

Jansen said he has talked to the composting business GreenRU, but the cost of a commercial hauler for a small college with the amount of waste Loras College is producing would be expensive.

The best option Jansen said he has found is a pulper, a machine that normally goes into the dish room and reduces food’s water weight. It would cut down the food waste weight by 80 percent, and the waste could then go to the composting facility at the Dubuque landfill.

Grinnell College in Grinnell uses a pulper to dispose of its dining hall food waste, one of the advantages being that it can grind items like meat, bones and napkins to be more easily compostable Chris Bair, environmental and safety coordinator for the college, said.

The pulper and composting system were part of the kitchen when the Joe Rosenfeld Center, where the school’s dining hall is located, was built. Students place their trays on a conveyor belt that take the trays to the kitchen, where items such as plates and glasses are removed and the remaining waste is dumped into the pulper. The pulper’s contents go into a barrel and, five days a week, a groundsperson takes about three to four barrels of the waste to a local farm.

Often some leaves and sticks are mixed into the waste and the compost is spread on a farmer’s field.

However, Bair pointed out that the system relies on the trays, and there has been recent push in similar cafeteria and dining facilities to go tray-less. Going tray-less limits the amount of food an individual can take at once and attempting to reduce food-waste at the source.


The Iowa Waste Reduction Center also has helped hospitals set up composting systems, as well as businesses such as Bluebird Diner in Iowa City, organizations like the Food Bank of Siouxland Inc. in Sioux City and towns such as Postville. A list of case studies can be found on the center’s website.

Tom Anderson said a meeting with solid waste agency, county and city officials was held in May to explore what Iowa needs, including funding and legislation, to create facilities and systems to better manage divertible waste. Recommendations are pending further study.

Last fall the center hosted a Food Recovery summit, a two-day conference in Des Moines where entities affected by food waste came together to discuss possible solutions and education on the issue. A second summit is to be held Sept. 11-13, 2018, in Des Moines. 

“We’ve been addressing food waste for over five years,” Nickey, at the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, said. “We’re disappointed that food waste is still increasing, but there’s a lot of factors that come into play that influence that.”  

Tackling problems rising food waste creates requires an attitude change, experts dealing with that waste in Iowa said in interviews.

“Just like recycling was, 15 years ago no one recycled and now the majority of people recycle. It just has to become the new norm,” Nickey said.

(An earlier version of this article stated that the 2017 Iowa Waste Characterization Study was the fourth study of it’s kind published since 1988. That date was incorrect and has been edited to 1998.) 


This IowaWatch story was republished by the Des Moines Register under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.

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