More than 90% of Illinois' plastic goes to landfills. Here are some solutions.
Despite the contributions you make to the health of the environment every time you slip your plastic milk cartons and food containers into the recycling bin, there's something you should know: More than 90% of the plastic used in Illinois ends up in landfills.
The causes are varied and complex, but the solution, environmental advocates and government authorities say, requires a blend of changing personal habits and revising public policies.
Plastic can take anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years to decompose, and it is slowly adding up in natural areas around the world. Rather than decomposing, studies show, plastic breaks down into microplastics -- pieces smaller than 5 millimeters -- and infiltrates our food, water and air.
"Plastics and litter impact not only our ecosystems, but the health of us, our families and our pets. It's really important as a consumer to do your research and understand the impacts," said Mary Allen, the recycling and education director at the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County. "Plastics are everywhere. They're ubiquitous."
Residents in Chicago's suburbs began curbside recycling in 1990. For decades, a majority of our materials were shipped to other countries where there were very low thresholds for contamination. In 2018, main intakers of recycling, including China and Turkey, became more stringent and stopped accepting mixed paper scraps and most plastics.
This threw a giant wrench in the U.S. recycling system, resulting in a reduction in the recycling rate from 8.7% in 2018 to 5%-6% in 2021, according to a recent report from environmental groups Last Beach Clean Up and Beyond Plastics, a project out of Bennington College in Vermont.
As of 2015, Illinois' plastic recycling rate is 8.1%, according to a state-commissioned waste report.
Though there have been significant investments in recycling processing facilities, said Megan Conway, the sustainability coordinator at Loyola University Chicago, part of the complication is that recycling is managed locally. With so many different types of plastic being generated, and the responsibility to recycle it shifting from foreign countries to municipalities, what is recyclable in each community changes based on garbage hauler and recycling processor.
Allen said recycling haulers and municipalities need to do a better job of educating people on what can and can't be recycled.
The Solid Waste Agency co-hosted an event Tuesday with environmental group Greener Glenview to educate residents on the topic.
Key take-aways from the event were:
• Plastic bags of any kind are not recyclable and often get tangled in the machinery at processing facilities.
• Single-use plastics and paper such as coffee cups are not recyclable.
• Bagged recycling goes to the landfill.
• Electronics, clothes and wires are not accepted in curbside bins.
• Everything in the cart must be rinsed and free of food.
• Caps are preferred on containers.
• Processors will not accept containers larger than 3.5 gallons.
Below are specific guidelines by county.
• Cook County: tinyurl.com/SWANCCRecyclingGuidelines
• Lake County: tinyurl.com/SWALCORecycling
• McHenry County: tinyurl.com/McHenryRecycling
• DuPage County: tinyurl.com/DuPageRecycling
• Kane County: tinyurl.com/KaneRecycling
• Will County: tinyurl.com/WillRecycling
Residents also can call their municipality or hauler for rules specific to their community.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that just because something is plastic, paper or metal that it can be thrown into your recycling bin, and that's not the case," said Javier Erazo, the district manager at Waste Connections, which operates Groot's materials recovery facility in Elk Grove Village.
The facility processes 500 tons of material from curbside bins every day, covering about a dozen suburban municipalities including Arlington Heights, Barrington and Niles. Of the materials sent to the facility, Erazo said, about 74% of it goes on to get recycled while the other 26% is rejected and sent to the landfill.
The facility separates materials through a complex process, using a mix of magnets, optical machines and even hand sorters. The materials go on to become paper products, clothing, lumber, benches and more, changing month to month depending on contracts and capacity.
Before you recycle, Allen recommends, consider reducing and reusing first: reusing bags and straws or buying products with minimal packaging.
"Look at the zero-waste big picture, and start a step at a time. Do one new thing and nail it, and then when you have that as your new normal, pick up another something to do that prevents waste and minimizes resources being used," she said.
While people should be working toward reducing their plastic use, "an individual person certainly doesn't have the burden of all of the plastic waste that's generated in the state or in the country," Loyola's Conway said.
That's because the nation's low plastic recycling rate is not only due to mistakes at the curbside bin.
"Generally speaking, there are about 29 different plastic products, and out of 29 products, the best materials recovery facility can sort about four. That's the reality of plastics," Allen said.
More than 2 million tons of plastic are generated in Illinois each year -- but not all of that is recyclable.
Consider, for example, the plastic air pockets that come in your shipping boxes, the plastic seal that tops your produce package and the plastic cling wrap that you cover your leftovers with.
There are several policy changes that local, state and national governments can consider, Conway said. Bans on single-use plastics are one of them.
Last week, Canada announced a ban on the manufacture and import of single-use plastics by the end of the year, including grocery bags, cutlery and straws. The country is giving businesses an additional year until selling these items will be prohibited.
The U.S. Department of the Interior recently pledged to stop selling single-use plastics at all national parks and forests by 2032. And the state of Illinois has pledged to do so with its state park system much sooner than that.
Conway added that these types of bans can be implemented all the way down to the local level.
Municipalities also can ensure there are opportunities to recycle items that aren't accepted in curbside bins, such as electronics, PVC pipes and thin plastic shipping material. Local education around what is accepted for recycling in each municipality is key, Conway said.
A broader type of policy that could move the needle on plastic reduction is called extended producer responsibility, which essentially puts the responsibility for any materials onto the producer. That could mean producers take on the operational responsibility to manage recycling programs, or the financial responsibility to pay for existing programs. This type of policy is meant to incentivize manufacturers to produce higher quality, more recyclable material.
Last year, Maine became the first state to pass an EPR for consumer packaging. Under the program, producers will pay into a fund based on the amount and recyclability of their products, and those contributions will go on to reimburse municipalities for eligible costs, as well as fund investments in recycling infrastructure and recycling education.
• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America. To contribute to the costs of the project, see www.reportforamerica.org/newsrooms/daily-herald-4/