A pile of trash dumped on Wild Cat Hollow Dr. near the Swope Soccer Village. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Every week, Gabrielle Stanley and a group of volunteers with the KC Parks Ambassadors program gather with a single goal in mind: Cleaning up illegal dumping at Indian Mound on Gladstone Boulevard & Belmont Boulevard.

But every week, they’re greeted by a new pile of trash and litter. 

Indian Mound is one of hundreds of illegal dumping sites across the Kansas City metro, filled with old mail, broken furniture, bursting trash bags and molding mattresses. Take a stroll around an open space in the city, and you’re likely to run into a busted tire, cracked glass or rotting wood.

The issue has plagued both sides of the state line for decades. In Kansas City, Kansas, officials are offering a cash reward for reporting dumping. In Kansas City, Missouri, the auditor’s office is opening an inquiry into how the issue is currently handled.

“If it weren’t a complex problem, we wouldn’t be talking about it,” Stanley said. “Obviously there’s something deeper going on.”

For residents living near the dumpsites, city action isn’t cutting it. Instead, they’re taking matters into their own hands, banding together to keep their neighborhoods and parks clean. 

“Trash crosses state lines and city lines,” said Nadja Karpilow, an environmental planner at Mid-America Regional Council. “Trash doesn’t care what district you’re in.”

KCMO residents upset with city response to illegal dumping of trash

A recent resident satisfaction survey showed that while Kansas City, Missouri, residents identified illegal dumping as one of the most important issues for the city to tackle, they were also incredibly dissatisfied with the city’s response. 

That frustration spurred the auditor’s office to look into the issue for the first time since 2000. This year’s audit has two main objectives: Determining how the city can improve community engagement efforts to reduce dumping, and how long it takes for the city to respond to complaints and clean them. The report is set to be released in January 2022. 

Despite rising dissatisfaction, the department is making progress, said Illegal Dumping Investigator Alan Ashurst. When Ashurst started in 2013, he was the only investigator handling illegal dumping. Now, there are six. 

“Everybody seems to think we aren’t doing anything,” he said. “If you want to be mad at somebody, you need to be mad at the people dumping.”

Ashurst and his team often clean dump sites, only to find them filled with trash again several days later. He’s set up 22 cameras around the city at common dump sites, which he uses to identify frequent offenders. 

“I visit each one of those cameras at least twice a week,” Ashurst said. “And I’m making sure that there’s not a dump in front of them. I’m checking the camera, making sure the batteries are good, getting the memory cards so I can see the pictures and run license plates, looking for evidence in the trash.”

Private vs. public illegal dumping sites for trash in Kansas City

From January 2007 to March 2021, 20,533 complaints were filed through the city’s 311 system about illegal dumping. The type varies — sometimes the dumping occurred in a right of way, and other times it’s on private property. 

Where the trash is dumped has a strong impact on the city’s ability to fix the problem. The city will not clean up dumping that’s occurred on private property, as it’s the owner’s responsibility to maintain it. 

“Now that’s extremely frustrating, I know, because there’s a lot of folks who have these vacant lots, they have boarded up houses, they’ve got businesses with alleyways behind them,” Ashurst said. “And it’s just a continuing problem of people who don’t have any respect dumping on your property, I know that’s frustrating.”

Clint Gorton, the general manager at AM Foam Products, is one of those frustrated by the issue of dumping on private property. After the company moved from Kansas City, Kansas to Kansas City, Missouri, it immediately noticed an uptick in illegal dumping on its property, particularly in an alleyway along the side. 

Sometimes, Gorton dons gloves and opens the trash bags left on the property. In many cases, the trashed mail comes from addresses only a few blocks away. 

“It takes a certain type of individual to litter,” he said. “People will dump here in broad daylight.”

Initially, Gorton’s company was on the receiving end of several citations for the dumping. After explaining the situation, sharing the evidence and working with Ashurst, security cameras were installed by the city. But the situation hasn’t improved.

“We don’t bother to call anymore,” Gorton said. “I don’t see a lot of change.”

Reasons for illegal dumping in KC metro are complex

In Kansas City, Missouri, each house is allowed to set out two trash bags a week for collection. Stanley said the limit can create a situation where dumping seems like the best solution. Recycling options are limited, meaning trash bags fill up faster.While people can buy additional trash bag tags from several locations in Kansas City, they come at an additional cost. 

“I think we should just allow more than two bags to be able to be taken with the weekly trash,” Stanley said. “Two bags is a little ridiculous. My household is only a household of two and we have two bags every week.”

Many people don’t know where to turn when they’ve accumulated excess trash, Stanley said, prompting them to dump when they otherwise wouldn’t. 

“If we made it a little bit easier and a little bit more obvious to dump trash in a sanctioned area, I think that would pretty much alleviate the problem,” she said.

Ashurst has also heard of people offering to take trash off people’s hands and dispose of it for $50 to $150, and then turning around and dumping it to avoid drop-off fees. It can seem like a simple solution for those doing a remodel on their house, for example, or another activity that would create excess trash.

“There are any number of people here that drive around and look for piles of garbage on people’s curbs, and they’ll say ‘I’ll take this to the dump for you,’” he said. In reality, that trash is likely ending up in a nearby park.

Illegal dumping trash enforcement approaches vary regionally across KC

If you see illegal dumping happening in Kansas City, Kansas, it might seem like it’s not your problem. But thanks to a new initiative by the city, reporting it might just net you $250. It’s part of a larger effort to cut down on illegal dumping in Wyandotte County, which includes both incentives for reporting and harsh fines for those who dump. 

While a first-time ticket for dumping in Kansas City, Missouri, might net someone a $700-$1000 fine, that number can increase to $2,500 in Wyandotte County. 

A no dumping sign near Gladstone Blvd. reminds people of illegal dumping fines. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Those city-to-city variations can incentivize people to cross state lines to dump their trash. In order to solve the problem, Karpilow said a regional strategy is necessary.

“If the enforcement is the same across the board, people won’t jump state lines,” Karpilow said. 

She is one of a group of women dubbed “The Trash Brigade,” which includes representatives from MARC, Heartland Conservation Alliance, University of Missouri-Kansas City Center for Neighborhoods, and Heart of the City Neighborhood Association. 

The brigade is hoping to spur community conversation on the issue, and has organized two regional meetings this year on illegal dumping. The first attracted over 100 participants, which Karpilow said was a pleasant surprise. Another is scheduled for Nov. 17, and will feature a speaker from St. Louis sharing insights on their own battle with illegal dumping.

“If we had a consistent message (regionally), that could have a big impact,” she said. “Clean ups are great, but short term.”

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.