If you haven't kept up with my reporting on local recycling realities, here's a brief recap of what I've found:
- State laws requiring every Illinois county to hire a recycling coordinator and start a recycling program were never enforced or financially supported.
- Many Southern Illinois counties have made minimal progress toward state and national recycling standards. Few counties have active recycling coordinators, despite the state mandate.
- As a result, most local counties have no idea how much recycling they do. Jackson County is the only county that consistently measures its recycling rate, the percentage of total county trash that was recycled instead of thrown in a landfill.
- Like many Americans, we still have terrible recycling habits, contaminating our recyclables and making them impossible to reuse. In Williamson County, they've found everything from food waste to dead animals in their recycling bins.
In our state's current fiscal condition, I know it's extremely difficult to justify big government. But recycling, to me, is a great of example of a society-wide problem that government intervention could fix.
That’s how it’s tackled in European countries like Germany, which routinely recycles over 50 percent of its trash. There, citizens are accustomed to five omnipresent recycling bins, mandated in communities across the country: blue for paper, yellow for plastic, white for clear glass, green for colored glass and brown for composting.
Here, we ask counties to provide and regulate recycling, and instill good habits in the public.
But our counties vary so much in size, wealth, population and infrastructure that it’s crazy to expect they could provide anything resembling consistent recycling coverage.
And when you’re dealing with an industry that depends on people’s habits — putting the right waste in the right place — consistency is key.
Jackson County is teaching kids at every county school how to recycle properly. Drive across the county line to Union, and you’ll find a government struggling to pay for a single public recycling dumpster. Education? Forget about it.
In the fall of 2014, Illinois paid a research consulting firm to go through our trash. Over 44,000 pounds of it, from families all across the state, taken off garbage trucks on their way to the landfill.
The results remind us how far we have to go.
About 25 percent of Illinoisans’ trash was found to be food waste, much of which could be composted, making soil more fertile, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, and even making plants better at pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, to combat global warming.
At SIU Carbondale, a state-of-the-art composting facility receives as much as a ton of food scraps per day from the campus dining halls. Students combine the food with animal manure from university farms, and produce rich natural fertilizer for use in campus landscaping.
There’s currently no plans to expand the operation beyond university food scraps, according to SIUC University Farms, but there’s certainly potential.
Another 21.1 percent of Illinois trash was paper products, the majority of which could have been recycled or composted, from printer paper and newsprint, to cardboard and boxboard. Glass and metal represented another 7 percent.
Extrapolating from the data, the market value of the commonly recyclable materials sent to Illinois landfills in 2014 was estimated at over $360 million, the research consultant reported.
As I said, I don’t think it’s fair to place the recycling burden on local counties. But here’s a few common sense solutions that won’t drastically upset the system.
1. Label. People have no idea what is and is not recyclable in this country. It doesn't help that recyclers, operating in a profit-driven industry, frequently change the materials they're willing to accept, as commodities change in value. However, certain products are always in demand and always recyclable, China tariffs, or no China tariffs. A simple campaign to label recycling bins could make a huge difference.
Proper labeling on bins at U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings, increased the recycling rate from 20 percent to 83 percent on game days, reported David Bornstein, in an opinion article for the New York Times. It’s a small, domestic example of what’s already been proven in other countries: labeling works.
2. Educate. It’s always easy to support education funding, and the oft-repeated reasons ring true here. Investing in school recycling programs now could pay off for generations. This is home economics for the 21st century, basic life skills all of us should have. In some Southern Illinois schools, they’re lacking.
3. Gather data. It is baffling that we have no idea how much recycling happens in our region. The information is out there. Every trash truck weighs in each time it drops off waste or recycling. The problem is, many counties aren’t running the numbers.
If we ever hope to improve our recycling rate, we need to know where we stand. Franklin County Recycling Coordinator Keith Ward was brave to share with me his estimate that Franklin County recycles about 10 percent of its trash. My research suggests most local counties are doing that badly, or worse, though I don’t have the hard data to prove it. Regardless, the state doesn’t appear to care. No one has even asked for Ward’s recycling reports for five years, he told me.
Maybe if we knew that our region was failing, it would motivate lawmakers to invest in county recycling coordinators, or small-town recycling programs, or school recycling education.
Of course, any of these fixes require spending. And there's no indication anyone’s willing to do it. In Williamson County, officials know they could do much more recycling with $50,000 more each year. However, their budget is already impossibly tight, they told me, and residents simply wouldn't accept a tax hike for a service widely seen as nonessential.
The problem is, recycling is a private industry that generates a public good: smaller, longer-lasting landfills. Less trash on the side of the road. Less horrible internet videos of animals struggling to get plastic bags off their heads.
It won’t ever solve our trash problems, but it will help. And it only really works when everyone does it, and does it right.