Recycling revamp: Taking a fresh look at a maturing environmental practice

  Tom Wagner, director of operations for H-F High
  School and member of the Homewood-Flossmoor
  Green Team, carries a television to be recycled
  during Recyclepalooza in 2017.
( Chronicle file photo)
 
It’s been nearly 30 years since Homewood Disposal Service began curbside pickup of recyclables. Back then, the company provided the old square box-bins that required homeowners to separate paper, plastic and aluminum.
 

  Click for a larger version 
  of the Recyclepalooza 
  2018 flyer.

 
The original old-school recyclers washed everything and diligently sorted their refuse so it could be more easily processed later. They were passionate and committed, many even delivering their recyclables if pickup didn’t exist at their home.

Homewood and Flossmoor residents certainly have maintained their motivation to recycle, as out on the curbs you’ll spot recycle bins stuffed to the brim while garbage cans sit only half-full. 

The collection of recycling has changed since those first recycle pickups in 1990. Homewood Disposal moved to a single stream system in 2000, allowing residents to dump all recyclables into the same bin. It’s easier than ever to recycle many different types of materials, with major retailers doing some of the heavy lifting.
 
  Twins Bryana and Imani
  Warner carry a bag of
  clothes to be donated
  to Salvation Army during
  the 2017 Recyclepalooza
  event.
(Chronicle file photo)
 
Recycling culture has changed, too, with residents seeking out detailed information about what materials are safe to go into the bin. And by lumping composting and thrift shopping into the same bucket, they’re thinking about the issue of recycling on a much deeper level.

As the number of recyclable items continues to expand, so does our understanding of what can be recycled, what can’t and what’s coming next.

Meanwhile, H-F residents, committed to the prospect of a greener world, are continuing their personal recycling efforts and taking part in innovative projects like the community-wide Recyclepalooza, which has become an annual May event in Flossmoor. 
 
Separating recyclables from garbage
The crowd gathered in the Helen Wilson Meeting Room at Flossmoor Public Library was already prepared with questions when Megan McElligot, education coordinator for Homewood Disposal, got up to speak on a recent Saturday.

They listened while McElligot offered a brief history of Homewood Disposal and offered some statistics:

Each day, 40 semi trucks go from Homewood Disposal’s East Hazel Crest Material Recovery Facility (MRF) location to landfills. They carry a total of 900 tons of garbage.

The MRF is one of only a few of its kind in the country. It was designed and built in the Netherlands.

The MRF was designed to handle 450 tons of recyclables per day. It currently processes 700 tons of recycling per day.

Then McElligot discussed how the MRF operates and why Homewood Disposal only accepts certain recyclable materials. First, she explained, there must be a stable marketplace of companies that will buy the material. The company can’t risk starting collection for material only to find out later there is no market for the recyclables. 

Also, the National Waste & Recycling Association offers guidelines on what materials can be picked up, based on existing and anticipated markets.

Another major consideration is the way the MRF processes small materials and plastic film, such as shopping bags and the wrap around a new package of toilet paper. The MRF pushes materials through for sorting using large toothy rings and as it does, plastic film gets wrapped around the system.

“We actually have to stop our system twice a day so that our guys can go up there and pull all the bags off the system,” McElligot said.

All plastic film can be recycled in the bins provided at Target, Kohl’s and other retailers.

The crowd then peppered McElligot with questions about what can be recycled and what cannot, getting into some more complicated matters. 

Nail polish bottles? No.

Steel? No.

Juice boxes? Yes, but not the straws.

Other cardboard cartons? Yes.

Garden hoses? No.

Extension cords? No.

Different colored glass? Yes.

Shredded paper? No, it messes up the MRF.

For a huge list of what you can put in your recycle bin, check out Homewood Disposal’s Recycling Guide at www.mydisposal.com/resources/recycling-guide.
 
Six tips for responsible recycling
Check out this information about how recyclables get processed, and what you can do to help: 
  1. The only glass that should be placed in your bin are bottles and jars. Other types of glass, such as from a broken mirror or dishes, are made differently and can’t be recycled in curbside programs.
  2. Many plastics can go in your bin, including bottles, jars and produce boxes, if they are imprinted with the numbers 1 through 7, except for 6. Plastic packaging should not be placed in the bin. Most restaurant drink cups, lids and straws cannot be recycled. 
  3. Even if a plastic item bears an acceptable number, McElligot said it may not be recyclable. “All it means is that some part of it contains that number plastic,” she said. “But it might be blended with other non-recyclable plastics.”
  4. Items should be gently cleaned to avoid contaminating other materials, but there’s no need to scrub or put items in the dishwasher. A crusty peanut butter jar is OK; a half-full jar is a contaminant.
  5. Leave the lids on everything! Because glass typically breaks before being processed, the MRF reads all small items as glass. If a water bottle lid is floating free, it will get dumped in with the glass and subsequently discarded.
  6. When you order pizza, be careful with your box. Once grease soaks into the fibers, the cardboard is no longer recyclable. However, it’s likely that while the bottom is garbage, a clean top can go in the bin.
 
Bottles and cans just the beginning
Jennifer O’Keefe had no idea how heavy a box of batteries could be. It was Recyclepalooza 2017 and O’Keefe was hauling AAs, Ds and everything in between up to Home Depot.

Despite the box’s heft, it was merely a drop in the bucket of recyclables collected that day from the more than 600 cars that pulled through.

“It was exciting, but it’s also a little depressing, looking at how much junk is out there,” O’Keefe said.

As chair of the Flossmoor Green Commission, O’Keefe is spearheading efforts for the 2018 Recyclepalooza on May 5 at Parker Junior High School in Flossmoor. Anyone can drive through to drop off tough-to-recycle stuff, such as plastic bags, number 6 plastics, polystyrene (Styrofoam), metals, sporting goods, bikes, ink cartridges, TVs and more. Details are at www.flossmoor.org.

Unlike in 2017, Recyclepalooza this year will not accept light bulbs or batteries. Those items can be brought to Home Depot, Batteries Plus and other stores for recycling. O’Keefe said they had problems last year with broken glass and hundreds of heavy batteries.

The event aims to make it as simple as possible for people to do something they agree is a good idea, but don’t always have the knowledge or incentive to accomplish.

“People want to do something they think helps the environment,” O’Keefe said. “This is an easy way to do it. You don’t have to make five different stops. You unload everything and then drive away. I think sometimes people recycle when it’s easy, but when it’s complicated — which oftentimes it is — it’s harder to be motivated.”

Renee Miller remembers the days when there was no recycling pickup in town. The Homewood resident is a passionate advocate for the environment and organized a litter pick-up event for Earth Day. Miller said she really hopes people are recycling these days, especially since they don’t even need to leave home to do the right thing.

“I remember back then, we had to separate the recycling and put it in the back of our car and drive to a recycling center to drop it off. It wasn’t always convenient,” she said. “With the village making it so easy to recycle, I would hope people would do it. That’s one reason there seems to be a big movement in the community, that people want weekly recycling pickup (instead of every other week).”

The definition of recycling is widening, Miller said, with more people buying items secondhand and dressing themselves in thrift store finds. The practice of recycling is also becoming more streamlined into our society, she said. From stores that accept recyclable items to collection events for old electronics, Miller sees ample opportunity for people to recycle. 

In addition to recycling, Miller also sees a groundswell of people who want to consume less. O’Keefe said people are buying fewer things and buying more reusable items.

“Also, instead of throwing things out, we’re selling our things and giving them away,” she said. “There seems to be a lot of interest in that — trying to make sure something doesn’t just end up in a landfill.”
 
Composting: Recycling in its rawest form 
When people discuss recycling, we usually think of a classic system that takes a man-made product, breaks it down and uses the resulting material to create a new product.

If you think about it, nature’s doing that all the time, constantly breaking down organic material and using the minerals and nutrients to grow new things. And more often now, humans want to help nature do its thing.

Many residents in the H-F area are clamoring for composting. While the die-hards mix the stuff right in their backyards, many caring people don’t have the knowledge, ability or desire to make their own compost. 

“I’ve been trying to get my arms around composting,” said Miller. “It’s been troublesome for our family, figuring out a good system, where to put it, how to keep my dog from eating it.”

Some residents are hopeful to eventually have a curbside compost pickup service, like the program recently implemented in River Forest, Illinois, which allows residents to dump food scraps and other organics in with their yard waste.

Compost is used to create mulch and fertilizer, allowing the old material to support new life. The effort for curbside composting remains at the grassroots level now, but with more Facebook buzz every day, it may not be long before residents see new compost bins popping up next to trash and recycle ones on the curb.
 

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