How suburbanites can make good recycling even better
The chorus line of aluminum cans, plastic water bottles and cardboard boxes winds its way up, down and around a conveyor belt at the Waste Management recycling sorting facility in Grayslake.
One by one, workers pluck out items that are out of step with their renewable counterparts.
A glass window pane here, a dirty furnace filter there, and plastic grocery bags that seem to be everywhere.
"The No. 1 thing is: Don't bag your recyclables," said Lisa Disbrow, Waste Management spokeswoman. "The plastic bags clog the machinery."
When the facility opened in 1997, it sorted about 200 tons of material each day.
Now, as recycling efforts have become more mainstream, that number has jumped to 350 tons of recyclables collected and sorted from Lake County, northern Cook County and parts of DuPage County.
In the past 25 years, recycling efforts in the suburbs have grown significantly. The reasons are pretty basic: It saves money, more items are accepted, waste haulers provide larger recycling carts, and it's simply the right thing to do.
But there are more steps, some simple and some that require special preparation, that residents can take to ensure fewer items ultimately are sent to landfills.
Just being hopeful
Decades ago, people used to take bags of aluminum cans to the grocery store. There, a can crusher would dole out a whopping 1 cent for every two cans.
Today, many homeowners wheel 65-gallon recycling carts to the curb each week. Separate containers for trash and recyclables are a common if not expected sight in schools, government buildings and public parks.
Likewise, electronic recycling and household hazardous waste drop-off sites operating on weekends are the norm.
But while the number of people recycling has grown, so too has the percentage of nonrecyclable materials collected at facilities such as the one in Grayslake.
About 12 percent of items, or roughly 84,000 pounds daily, brought to the Grayslake facility can't be recycled, said Plant Manager John Schultz.
"It's something that's been climbing over the last several years," he said, noting a rejection rate of 10 percent or less is good. "I've seen single digits."
Some transgressions could be people trying to cheat the system.
But Wheaton resident Kay McKeen doesn't see the rise of nonrecyclable materials being taken to the Grayslake facility as a completely bad thing.
McKeen, the founder of SCARCE, or School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education, said the increase could be the byproduct of good-hearted efforts to reduce waste.
"Some people say, 'Let them figure it out.' We've had some people tell us that in (SCARCE) programs," McKeen said. "They really are conscientiously trying to recycle as much as possible. You're not malicious. You're just hopeful."
How you can help
When recycling began, people were asked to look at the bottom of their plastic containers for the recycling symbol (referred to by some as the chasing arrows) along with a number. Some kinds of plastic numbers were accepted and some were not.
But that mode of thinking is obsolete and recycling guidelines have simplified, said Peter Adrian, recycling coordinator at the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County. Basically every type of plastic is recyclable, and his mantra when he speaks to students or community groups is: All plastics, no film, no foam.
"Maybe that will catch on. I don't know," Adrian said. "It's not as catchy as reduce, reuse, recycle."
Adrian said foam is recyclable, but most facilities don't accept it because massive quantities must be recycled in order to obtain material that can be reused.
The plastic film that usually envelopes new electronics should be grouped with plastic grocery bags and recycled in receptacles at local grocery stores, Adrian said.
Adrian said people can take other simple steps at home to recycle more, such as recycling the cardboard roll from toilet paper as well as the empty shampoo bottle.
McKeen said one simple step is taking the inner plastic bag out of a cereal box before putting it in the recycling bin. The box is recyclable; the bag is not.
Adrian said the biggest thing is making recycling convenient.
"There are people who are going to be dedicated who will do anything and everything they're asked to," Adrian said. "Those in the middle, if you give them the right direction, they will make the effort.
"If you make it convenient, you make it easy to do, and you tell them everything they need to know in a clear, concise way, generally people will do it. If you put barriers up or confuse them, they won't do it."
Containers to carts
Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke can recall the late 1980s when he first took rectangular-shaped recycling bins to community and church groups to explain what was a baffling task for some: separating recyclable items like plastic, paper and aluminum cans from everyday trash and placing them into a different container.
"Some got it, some didn't get it," said Schielke, one of the area's longest-serving mayors at 33 years.
While curbside recycling pickup has been the norm for suburban communities for decades, a shift in thinking occurred about a decade ago, Adrian said.
Seeking to reduce workers comp claims, waste haulers began using different kinds of vehicles that had mechanical arms to lift recycling carts into the truck instead of the driver emptying it, Adrian said.
The cart-based recycling program gave homeowners a 65-gallon cart with wheels and a hinged lid, eliminating the need for trash collectors to dump recyclable materials into the truck themselves.
It's helped consumers, too, said Waste Management's Disbrow. Residents recycle about 40 percent more with the recycling cart.
In many communities, residents must buy stickers for their regular trash. This volume-based, "pay-as-you-throw" pricing gave people a financial incentive to recycle. The more you recycle, the less you pay for trash pickup.
"You can't deny that it saves money," McKeen said. "A lot of people are doing it because it's the right thing to do. Once (the old bins) were full, people just put everything in the garbage."
Adrian said community leaders like the recycling carts because it creates uniformity in neighborhoods instead of a hodgepodge of containers on the curb.
"We've gotten away from government telling them how to do their job to the industry saying, 'This is how we do it,'" Adrian said.
Schielke said Batavia switched from bins to carts six months ago.
Some residents thought they could just throw all their trash into the larger containers, Schielke said. Garbage collectors had to re-educate homeowners on what to do, but overall the bins have greatly reduced neighborhood litter, especially on windy days.
"This is a long, winding road to get us to the point where everybody is on the same page and doing it the right way. It doesn't happen overnight," Schielke said. "It's a subject that doesn't have a clear and concise beginning and an end. (But) at the end of the day, there's the acknowledgment that recycling is very good for the community and the future."
Books, peanut oil
It's not just the staples of paper/cardboard, glass, plastic and metal that can be recycled.
McKeen started SCARCE more than 20 years ago with a mission to recycle books from residents that area libraries didn't want and charities couldn't necessarily sell.
Now, SCARCE can say it's helped recycle more than 5 million books.
And in November, SCARCE helped organize 21 drop-off locations for people who wanted to recycle their 4.5 gallons of peanut oil from deep-frying turkeys at Thanksgiving into biofuel.
More than 12,000 pounds of peanut oil were collected during a three-hour window on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. McKeen said not only can the oil be turned into biofuel, but it also was saved from being poured down the drain, which clogs and stresses municipal water systems.
And instead of the landfill, people are donating to -- and buying from -- thrift stores and secondhand outlets like Goodwill or Habitat For Humanity's ReStore.
McKeen said SCARCE even got a call from a resident asking if the square plastic tabs used for bread and English muffin bags could be recycled. Those can't be recycled -- yet -- because they fall through conveyor belts at sorting facilities.
But the fact that some people are thinking about it encourages her.
"People wouldn't be calling us about those tabs if they weren't trying to do as much as they possibly could," she said.
"Caring for the environment, preventing pollution in the first place, these are big, big concerns of businesses, families and churches, and certainly schools."
How you can recycle betterRecycling guidelines have changed and simplified over the years. Here are some tips:
• Caps should be left on plastic bottles, but metal tops should be removed from glass containers.
• Light bulbs, drink glasses, ceramics, bakeware, mirrors, ornamental glass, window and auto glass are not accepted.
• Do not put recyclable materials in plastic grocery bags, which jam machinery at sorting stations.
• Clean and empty plastic grocery bags and wrappers should be stuffed into one bag, tied closed and taken to the nearest grocery or retail store for recycling there. Other items that may be grouped with these bags are: newspaper, bread, produce, dry-cleaning and zipper-style bags; Bubble Wrap; napkin and paper towel wraps; and diaper wraps.
• The insides of plastic and metal containers should be rinsed out. They don't have to be dishwasher clean, but dirty items, such as a container with gooey peanut butter inside, typically will be tossed.
Sources: Daily Herald interviews, Solid Waste Agency of Lake County