Going green: Iowa City Council takes steps to make city more environmentally-friendly

Iowa City Hall — photo by Zak Neumann

Iowa city council members discussed ways to make Iowa City greener — including moving forward with a climate action steering committee, making the city more bicycle friendly and making it easier to recycle — during a Tuesday meeting.

Five members were appointed to a newly established Climate Action Steering Committee, which will work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city. The council also discussed progress on the city’s Bicycle Master Plan and approved a proposal to purchase new recycling trucks, which could increase local recycling since residents won’t have to sort recyclables before they are picked up.

Climate Action Steering Committee

With 41 applicants for only five at-large seats, the council took over an hour to decide who would be the best individuals to serve on the Climate Action Steering Committee, which will mainly tackle ways to reduce Iowa City’s carbon footprint, but will also conduct outreach to educate and seek input from the public. Other criteria Mayor Jim Throgmorton mentioned during the meeting included: commitment to climate action, knowledge and experience in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the ability to work with a diverse committee and engage the public.

Charles Stanier, a University of Iowa associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, was the only unanimous pick. After narrowing down the other 40, they chose: Martha Norbeck, an Iowa City architect and LEED consultant; John Fraser, who has been involved in local climate change discussions and attended the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference; Anne Russett, a Cedar Rapids city planner; and Eric Tate, a University of Iowa assistant geography professor. The council also appointed University of Iowa student Kara Hoving as a student designee, a position that will have a vote on the committee.

The topic of climate change and discussions about what steps the city can take have come up frequently during recent meetings. At a previous meeting on March 7, Throgmorton presented his Climate Action Project Memo with proposals including a $25,000 climate action grant program, which would provide grants for small community-based projects, as well as a solar panel array, which encountered criticism from some city council members who said an array wouldn’t be the most financially feasible way to combat climate change. They decided to leave decisions about things such as this to the new Climate Action Steering Committee.

Bicycle Master Plan

Although Iowa City earned a silver Bike Friendly Community status from the League of American Bicyclists, it still has a ways to go to make biking more safe and inclusive for its residents, critics say.

According to a survey of 600 residents on the Bike Master Plan website, about 78 percent said protected bike lanes, more urban multi-use trails and intersection improvements would help to make biking safer and more convenient, according Kevin Neil, the transportation planner for Alta Plan and Design firm that holds the contract to complete the Bike Master Plan. Iowa City residents who took the survey also noted the need for stronger bicycle advocacy organizations.

As part of the Bike Master Plan, the city hosted an open house in January, which about 120 residents attended to share their own ideas about how to improve biking. In May it will host a second open house and Bike To Work week events. Plans are also in place for a student focus group at Southeast Junior High and outreach and engagement programs for low-income and underrepresented groups in March and April, the details of which are pending.

The council discussed potential steps that could be taken in the future, including partnering with local businesses to install city-sponsored bike racks and encourage employees to bike to work. Council members also expressed concerns about night-time biking and the need to provide more education through the Bike Master Plan about night biking and general bike safety.

In response to questions from council members about whether or not bike lanes would be financially feasible, City Manager Geoff Fruin noted that the funds exist, having rolled over from Fiscal Year 2017, for bike lane improvements. Neil said they are waiting to work with the city engineer to vet plans and expenses to find feasible solutions and create the lanes.

Neil noted that bike lanes are one of the crucial elements to make Iowa City more bike friendly, allow the biking community to feel safe and welcome, and, he emphasized, “to make biking a preferred mode of travel.”

Updated Recycling

New recycling trucks will increase efficiency by not requiring recyclables to be pre-sorted.

The new method of pick-up in the City Solid Waste Division is called commingled recycling collection. Rather than residents separating plastics and paper trash, this responsibility will be placed on the recycling facilities. A 2012 study published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling noted that this commingled collection system in the United States “resulted in an approximately 50 percent increase in the production of recyclable commodities and an accompanying decrease in per tonne material management costs.”

The cost of the four trucks, which will replace the five the city has now, will be $329,928.

In addition to boosting individual recycling, the city hopes to encourage composting by delaying a new $2 monthly charge for composting until Jan. 1, 2018. Throgmorton mentioned that he had heard from with one constituent who only utilizes city compost services once a year and expressed concern over the price since he and his neighbors have their own compost units and will not utilize these services that they pay for.

“We don’t all use everything we pay for, but for the city as a whole it will help boost composting,” Council Member Susan Mims said, in defense of the additional charge.

Organic wastes disposed in landfills cause the production of methane, a greenhouse gas. Composting these materials, as opposed to sending them to the landfill, can improve both soil and water quality. Increased composting citywide will increase the amount of compost available at the city landfill, which has currently run out and may not be available for a few months since curbside yard waste pick-up recently resumed on Feb. 27.

Other environmental improvements discussed during the meeting included:

  • A tree inventory cataloged over 13,000 trees since the past fall, according to the city website, “to better manage and maintain Iowa City’s urban forest.”
  • An attempt to ban plastic bags has been halted because pending legislation (House File 295) that could limit a local government’s ability to ban consumer merchandise, including “any container used for consuming, carrying or transporting such merchandise.” Despite this, the 2017 farmers market will prohibit plastic bags.

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