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Recycling rollercoaster: Ups and Downs in Williamson County

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

MARION — After 10 years as the Williamson County recycling coordinator Kevin Robbins is pretty much right back where he started.

One man with one truck, working part-time, doing his best to provide recycling drop-off service to a county with 67,000 residents and 660 square miles of rural unincorporated areas, where curbside recycling is scarce.

Shortly after he took the job, in 2009, Robbins and county government leaders attempted big changes. Changes that kept thousands of tons of waste out of Southern Illinois landfills.

They arranged weekly recycling pickups at schools, and installed four public drop-off trailers at other public buildings around the county. They hired a full-time employee and began hauling recycling for local government offices and businesses, for a small fee.

Back then, Robbins estimates his program was recycling 285 to 326 tons of plastic, cardboard and paper each year.

“It was huge,” Robbins said. “It seemed like every day I was hauling away full trailers.”

But in 2012 the county’s commissioners decided to cut back.

“We were spending over $100,000 on recycling a year, with a $17-million budget,” remembers Commissioner Ron Ellis. With so many other financial obligations, from schools to the police force, the program “simply wasn’t feasible,” Ellis said.

First, the county cut service to businesses. Then, in September 2018, county commissioners decided to pull the drop-off trailers and stop all service to schools.

In spite of Robbins’ best efforts, the trailers had become targets for illegal dumping.

Electronics. Food products. Dead animals and animal feces thrown in the trailers. Trash strewn all over the ground, blowing in the wind.

“We probably had to take at least one, maybe two trailers a month to the landfill,” Robbins said. At about $150 in dumping fees per trailer it was expensive and counterproductive.

Robbins is a hunter, farmer, biker and self-admitted “tree-hugger,” who’s not afraid to share his environmentalist views with anybody. Not a longtime fishing buddy he caught sinking a beer bottle in the lake. Not even with his mother-in-law, when she threw a snack wrapper out the car window.

“It drove me crazy,” Robbins remembers. “I posted signs on the trailers, and people would still go in there. We put cables on them, so after school they could shut them. No, people went up and cut the cables and put their household trash in the containers anyway.”

“It just seemed like everything we did, one bad apple would ruin it for everyone,” said Brent Gentry, a county commissioner since 2004.

But contamination wasn’t the only factor that killed a popular recycling program.

Commissioners said they’d long been eyeing the recycling budget for further cutbacks.

“We had more urgent issues,” Ellis said, as state mandates to add staff at the courts and provide housing benefits to the poor ate away at an already tight budget.

“Recycling is an avenue not everyone participates in, and a lot of people were not happy with their tax dollars going to something that they weren’t getting any benefit from,” Ellis said.

These days, Robbins is working with about $50,000 a year and 10.5 salaried hours per week out in his communities. No hauling trailers, and no recycling for schools.

He parks his big box truck in Marion and Johnston City three mornings a week, so folks can come drop off their recycling. He’s out for 3.5 hours each day, sorting and organizing the material, and cutting up with his regulars.

When elderly residents pull up, he hops down and grabs the bins and bags out of their cars. When people bring him something he can’t take, like plastic bags, he explains why not and where else they can be dropped off.

“When we pulled the trailers, my phone was burnt up,” Robbins said.

He did his best to help residents find alternative places to drop off their recyclables, and encouraged them to come to his drop-off days. He even arranged personal pickups for a home-bound elderly woman, on his own time.

Robbins is proud of what he’s still able to do with a scaled-back program, but he knows he’s nowhere close to the impact he once had. By his estimate, he’s now taking in 40 to 50 tons of recycling a year — between one-sixth and one-seventh of his old totals.

Some of the schools he once serviced have found new recycling solutions, while others haven’t. Some faithful recyclers drive from surrounding towns to attend his drop-off days. Others, he doesn’t see anymore.

Ultimately it’s all a drop in the bucket in a county that produces more than 200,000 tons of trash each year, per a 2009 estimate.

In conversations with The Southern, none of Williamson County’s recycling leaders, from county commissioners, to the recycling coordinator, could give the county’s overall recycling rate, the most important measure of progress.

Nobody knows because nobody is counting.

“This all started with this goofy ignorant law that was shoved down everyone's throat with no guidelines,” Ellis said.

He was referring to the Illinois Solid Waste Planning and Recycling Act, a state law implemented in the mid-90s that required every county to appoint a recycling coordinator and develop a plan to recycle at least 25 percent of its trash.

But that ambitious goal was never backed up with any state support or oversight, Ellis said.

Some counties, like Franklin, obeyed the Act and established recycling coordinators and programs, but still lag far behind the state's goals and the national recycling rate, recently measured at 21.4 percent.

Other local counties don’t even have recycling programs, and the state hasn’t bothered to ask for recycling progress updates in Southern Illinois for several years, coordinators say.

With very few towns operating their own municipal trash service, most recycling depends on a complex network of private trash companies, big and small. And with no state help, counties like Williamson struggle to monitor and regulate haulers, who are free to choose whether or not to take recycling.

In Jackson County, the region’s recycling leader, regulations were imposed quickly after the Recycling Act requiring every trash hauler to begin accepting a wide range of recyclable materials, including lower-profit ones, like glass.

Enforcement of those rules has been essentially “nonexistent,” according to Greg Burris of trash hauler Burris Disposal Service. But they still set a tone that shaped a successful industry in Jackson County, which reported a recycling rate of 27 percent in 2015.

“It’s not that we wouldn’t have gotten involved, but certainly the regulations provided an impetus for us to take the dive, and we did it completely,” Burris said.

Burris Disposal now automatically includes recycling in all of its waste removal plans, and charges for trash by volume, providing an incentive for residents to recycle as much as possible.

“What Jackson County did in the early ‘90s was what every county was supposed to be doing,” Burris said. “They did it right off the bat. After just a couple years, it became clear the state mandate was just a suggestion, and many counties never followed through.”

Gentry and Ellis were quick to point out that Jackson County has benefitted from a unique revenue source that gives it an advantage over other counties.

Jackson collects a fee for every ton of trash dumped in the Southern Illinois Regional Landfill in De Soto. It has used those tipping fees, about $345,000 each year, to build a recycling program that has long been recognized as a downstate pacesetter, said Marlin Hartman, president of the Illinois Counties Solid Waste Management Association.

The county has a full-time waste enforcement inspector, who combats illegal trash dumping and burning, and makes sure the Southern Illinois Regional Landfill is up to code.

It has a full-time recycling coordinator, Kerri Gale who issues permits to trash companies and tracks all the waste and recyclables they haul.

And it has by far the most impactful school recycling program in the region. While most local counties leave schools to decide whether to recycle and how to pay for it, Jackson’s program pays for recycling at every county school, and funds a county recycling educator, who visits schools all year to lead activities.

In Williamson County, funding is much scarcer. But lax regulations may also harm recycling.

Unlike Jackson County, trash haulers in Williamson are not required to procure any county license and may choose whether or not to offer recycling.

That has led to large haulers like Republic Services offering recycling only in population dense areas, while ignoring it elsewhere. Meanwhile, the small, independent haulers that cover many rural areas usually reject recycling altogether, Robbins said.

“Those independent trash services, there is no accountability and you don’t know where the trash goes,” Gentry said. “A lot of these guys want easy money, and they dump the trash right on the side of the road, and then we’re picking it up with the taxpayer’s dollars. It happens all the time.”

But Gentry doesn’t see more pressure on haulers as the right way forward. He’s confident that companies like Republic will shoulder the burden of educating residents and expanding recycling service, in years to come.

The county is already paying Republic to maintain a few public recycling dumpsters, replacing the trailers it once provided.

“We’re not trying to pressure. The county is just trying to offer a service that meets needs of people that don’t have curbside recycling.” Gentry said. “Having a guy like Kevin out in the community, we’re still doing way better than a lot of these counties.”

On Friday morning, Robbins was living up to his title as Williamson County’s recycling ambassador, unfazed by the cold as he accepted residents’ recycling drop-offs.

Robbins grew up “between the lakes,” south of Marion, he says, surrounded by natural beauty

“I remember going down country roads and everything was pristine,” Robbins said. Now he fixates on the trash he sees in drainage ditches and the plastic bags caught in his fence line.

As they think about recycling in Williamson County, Robbins and the commissioners have different visions for the future.

Robbins sees a growing county that is opening its eyes to the importance of caring for the environment.

“We’ve had so many people move in from areas where they had mandatory recycling. They feel guilty by not being able to do it,” Robbins said. “To me, if they said to the public, ‘look, for X amount of dollars on your property taxes there would be curbside service,’ I think they would take up on it. I don’t think it was ever offered to the public the way it should’ve been.”

To Ellis, the idea of county-wide curbside service is laughable.

“If that was put on a referendum, you’d see that fail, I’m gonna predict by 70 percent,” Ellis said. “I think it’s sad and it’s a pipe dream. Could there be some more services that are provided? Absolutely. Are they necessary and good? Probably. But how do you fund it? Where’s the money going to come from?”

Raising taxes, Ellis said, is out of the question. He and Gentry touted Williamson County’s status as one of the lowest property tax areas in Southern Illinois, and suggested that lower taxes contribute to the county’s population growth, at a time when many surrounding counties have lost residents.

“Look at Franklin County. Everyone agrees they need a new courthouse,” Ellis said. “Twice they put it on a referendum, and they can’t even get a 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for it. Why would someone do that for recycling? There is no way.”


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