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Kendra Kostelecky, a spokesperson for Waste Management, points out contamination of a cardboard bundle during a tour inside the recycling center in Reno, Nev., on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

By Mark Funkhouser

Living in a city is a daily exercise in cooperation. The collective contributions and actions of citizens and their local government can produce a high quality of life, rich in convenience and social benefits. As the former mayor and auditor of a large city (Kansas City, Missouri), I have seen the power of collaboration. It is the foundation of city life – something to be protected and kept healthy. Because when a municipality has a problem to solve, all partners must rise fully to the challenge.

Global forces are changing the way all American cities handle their trash and recyclables. For decades, we relied on China’s insatiable appetite for our recyclable goods. Shipping containers from China that delivered products to our shores were sent back filled with our blue-bin contents of plastics, glass and paper. Our reliance on the Chinese recycling market was so great that when China put import restrictions (known as China Sword) on these commodities last year, American cities were immediately backed up with tons of material that we want to recycle, but do not have the infrastructure to handle.

When China closed their door, our best intentions and practices became, very quickly, almost meaningless. In communities like Southern Nevada, residents are blue-bin recycling champions – vigilantly separating their recyclables from their trash in the interest of the environment and future generations. Meanwhile, city officials have worked faithfully with municipal waste professionals to spend resident’s waste-management fees responsibly on trash removal and disposal methods that meet the highest environmental standards.

The partnership is working exactly the way it should, with single-stream recycling fully implemented and all players doing their part; but more will now be required of all parties. 

City managers should be prepared to work with industry experts to discover the true cost of recycling in this changed waste-management world. Residents will need to expand their blue bin skills – for example, more conscious effort to keep trash out of the recyclables stream. Improving recycling practices won’t be easy. It can be a confusing task, with a lot of variables – so it will be city officials’ responsibility, working with the waste management industry, to educate residents and make the work of individuals and families as easy as possible. 

Municipal solid waste is often referred to as a “stream” for a reason – it never stops flowing. For that reason, the hard, cooperative work of improving domestic waste management capabilities must start now. It must be fully collaborative. And it must continue into the future.

Thankfully, the rewards are as clear as the needs. A more robust recycling industry will be good for the local economy and for the global environment. Every resident of Southern Nevada has the power to reduce the impact of global warming through their own choices – what materials to buy in the first place, then what to throw away and what to recycle. For example: I recently learned that I can do my part through choosing canned beer instead of bottled beer, and I’m happy to make that change.

City officials will enjoy the immediate reward that comes with being the most responsible possible stewards of their residents’ dollars. Money spent wisely today on education and infrastructure will be their incredible legacy to the people they serve today, as well as all future residents of, and visitors to, the city of lights.

Vegas will always sparkle at night; by working collaboratively, residents and city officials can make sure Southern Nevada also becomes a shining example of smart, sustainable waste management.

Mark Funkhouser lives in Washington D.C. and is an internationally recognized auditing expert, author and teacher in public administration and its fiscal disciplines. He is also publisher of Governing magazine and served as mayor of Kansas City, Mo., from 2007 to 2011. He also was the city’s auditor for 18 years. 

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