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In rural Southern Illinois, recycling lags. But it's growing.

From the The state of recycling in Southern Illinois: Which plastic to throw in your bin, and how the global economy matters series
Southern Recycling 2

An employee at Southern Recycling sorts plastic recyclables, inside the company's Carbondale facility.

CARBONDALE — In 1989, Illinois set a lofty goal for a statewide recycling program.

Every county in the state would appoint a recycling coordinator and develop a plan to recycle at least 25 percent of its trash.

In rural Southern Illinois, it was a big change.

“Back then, we had burn barrels,” said Keith Ward, the Franklin County recycling coordinator. “People started really talking about recycling.”

When the state regulations were announced, Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Perry and Williamson counties teamed up to develop a waste management plan.

But in the 20 years since, each county has worked alone to meet the plan’s recommendations, according to a 2016 report from the Jackson County Health Department.

That has led to big differences in how each county recycles, and how much recyclable material ends up in local landfills.

Jackson County, home to bigger towns with convenient curbside recycling service plus multiple large recycling companies that accept a wider range of lower-profit items, like glass and electronics, recycled an estimated 27 percent of all municipal waste in 2015.

Franklin County, Ward said, manages about 10 percent.

“We’ve introduced ordinances for recycling, but when there’s no money and no county facilities, it’s hard to enforce anything,” Ward said. “We do the best we can.”

While all trash haulers in Jackson County are required to also accept recycling, haulers in Franklin, Williamson and other local counties can choose whether or not to participate.

In some cases they can also choose what recyclable materials to accept, allowing them to deny lower profit items.

“Back when the plans were written, there was a market for cardboard, glass and plastic,” Ward said. “Now, the market has gone to pot. And you can’t expect people to do this with no money.”

Still, the larger story of recycling in rural Southern Illinois is one of substantial progress, and Ward said he’s proud of the strides Franklin County has made.

“The biggest change in the last 10 years is that there’s interest in the smaller towns,” agreed Mike Huskey, owner of Revolution Recycling, which provides recycling containers for many Southern Illinois towns and counties.

“It used to be that once you got outside Jackson County, there was nothing going on,” Huskey said. “Now, we’re getting interest all over the place.”

In many smaller communities, the growth has come in the form of drop-off programs. Towns or counties contract with Huskey or a competitor to provide dumpsters where the public can drop off their recycling.

Huskey acknowledges that statistics show curbside pickup increases recycling rates, but for cash-strapped small towns, drop-offs are more economical, and easier to start, Huskey said.

They also provide access to more isolated rural residents, who might not be able to arrange recycling service at their homes, added Rob Willming, general manager of Republic Services.

“The challenge we have in the Southern Illinois market is people don’t realize the cost associated with recycling and processing, and they’re not willing to pay,” Willming said. “They see it as a commodity, rather than a service.”

As a region, Southern Illinois still lags far behind the national recycling and composting rate, measured at 34.7 percent of all trash in 2015, by the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, Southern Illinois also generates less trash per person per day than any other area of the state — about 6.6 pounds, versus 8.7 in the Chicago Metropolitan area, per the 2015 Illinois Commodity Waste Generation and Characterization study.

In Franklin County, Ward knows there’s room for improvement with a little more attention and money from government and community members.

Under the 1989 solid waste act, he was originally expected to report to the state yearly on Franklin County’s recycling program.

“Now they don’t even bother to ask for the reports,” Ward said. “In the past five years we haven’t heard from the state hardly at all.”

No feedback, no praise or admonishment, and no planning to improve.

“To tell you the truth it’s a good thing, because there’s no way we could do what was expected of us,” Ward said. “But it’s a shame, too.”


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