One Person's Trash, Another County's Treasure
Maybe you’ve heard the environmentally-friendly advice: Recycle your cans. Put litter in the trash when you see it on the ground. Maybe you’ve spent an afternoon cleaning a local river like the Kishwaukee. Then where does that garbage go? While support for green initiatives like these are growing in public focus, landfills in northern Illinois continue to fill up.
According to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, or IEPA, there are seven active landfills in northwestern Illinois, known as Region 1. Trash is dropped by the ton every day from counties around the region. Landfills in Ogle County take some of Chicago’s waste. Haulers from Iowa and Wisconsin contribute to the sites, and some of California’s trash has been sent to Ottawa’s LandComp Landfill. But trash can turn to treasure for some counties. That’s because of host agreements.
Haulers must pay landfills a price, known as a gate or tipping fee, to drop their waste there. The Environmental Research & Education Foundation maintains information on average tipping fees for municipal solid waste landfills. According to its most recent publicly available report, average tipping fees for Illinois in 2017 measured to $50.10 per ton, but it varies based on location. A portion of that money routinely goes to the host county.
Peter Stefan is the finance director for DeKalb County. Stefan said trash that makes it to DeKalb’s landfill indirectly pays for infrastructure like paying back the cost of the new county jail and its operations. Host fees also help fund a radio communication system for the county sheriff.
“On top of that, the agreement also calls for a flat $25,000 payment anytime that the Health Department has one of those household hazardous waste collection days. So [the landfill operators] pick up a good portion of the cost there as well,” he said.
DeKalb County’s landfill recently expanded to extend its life.
“In August of 2014, is when the expansion at the landfill open for business -- for deposits, let's put it that way. And so since then, we have collected, it appears to be, over $11 million,” he said.
Zero waste goals aim, in part, to send less trash to landfills. Stefan said reevaluating waste streams through things like recycling wouldn’t technically affect county revenues.
"The life of the landfill would be extended if less goes in. So in total, you're going to get that revenue, you're just going to get it over a longer period of time. Because there's always going to be trash that's generated, so the recyclables will just dictate how fast it's going to fill up," he said.
DeKalb County has evaluated what they throw away before; they used to have a Zero Waste Task Force in 2013. Their goal was to address ways to minimize and prevent waste sent to their landfill because it can benefit the environment and landfill expansion is costly. Greg Maurice is the county’s director of health protection. He was part of the group.
“The Task Force itself was only active for a little over a year. And then officially, that Task Force once that report was done, was completed. But now we have a -- it's a little different, we call it our 'solid waste,' kind of, 'advisory committee.' But it's not an official committee of the County Board anymore," said Maurice.
Their final report says eliminating all waste from the county was “not realistic.” Still, the idea was adopted as a guiding principle through an ordinance adoption in 2014.
The Task Force called for future focus to be put on expanding rural recycling, addressing what apartment residents do with their waste and maintaining a composting system. They also suggested the creation of a waste advisory committee in DeKalb County. Maurice said the county’s composting progress has been a win.
“We've kind of achieved that goal, I will say. We've achieved at least the ability to compost that organic material now, rather than just have it landfill,” he said.
In its final report, the Task Force also recommended reducing landfill intake rate by 50% in 20 years for 2.14 pounds per capita per day by 2034. According to data from the IEPA, DeKalb’s landfill intake rates have increased since that time. Waste received in 2014 measured to 1,866,668 gate cubic yards. That rate rose to 2,448,162 cubic yards in 2017 -- a 30% increase over 3 years. Their waste total fell in 2018 to 2,290,580.
DeKalb’s landfill is operated by Waste Management Inc. Waste Management is the largest waste company in America. They make space online to mention “zero waste” and green initiatives. One of these efforts include facilitating a sporting event intended to demonstrate zero waste management. It’s unclear how a waste company is affected when they encourage consumers to make less or no trash at all. A separate organization, Waste Management Illinois, declined to comment for this story.
Other landfills have increased their waste streams over the last few years according to IEPA totals. Advanced Disposal Services Orchard Hills Landfill, in Davis Junction of Ogle County, took in 45% more trash in 2017 than it did in 2014. Their intake rate fell in 2018. Steve Rypkema is the Director of Ogle County Solid Waste Management.
He says Ogle County received $2.7 million dollars in 2018 from host fees collected from it’s two landfills. He said this amount fluctuates based on overall economic trends. That funds the solid waste department, educational efforts, collection events, and capital projects.
“[T]he development and construction of new buildings in the county, like the judicial Center, the sheriff's department, remodeling [the Solid Waste Department’s] building. And the jail that is now under construction -- those are all funded from host fees that come from the landfills,” he said.
Landfill streams might be growing in this area because Ogle County recently closed its public recycling program. Rypkema said five dumpsters that used to be scattered throughout the county for rural residents were taken away.
“We had to stop the program, the cost was going up over 150%. And we had issues with contamination, people throwing things in there that didn't belong. So that went away. And that was one of the main options for many of the people that live outside of a community that has curbside recycling,” he said.
Rypkema said there have been “ups and downs” with recycling markets before, but what’s happening now is “the worst” he’s seen in his 29 years in waste management. International buyers like China have all but stopped taking America's recycling, which means there’s a lot piling up because the biggest markets don’t want it anymore.
“So it's difficult for some things -- there is no alternative, but to throw them out. And that hurts to say that, especially since we've developed such a following over the years, we've had people that have grown very dependent on the services that we provide,” he said.
Another part of Rypkema’s job is to inspect landfills as a delegate of the IEPA.
“For the landfills, the thing that we get the most complaints about are odors...odors or litter,” he said.
Landfills have been a source of environmental concern too, because of their potential to leak materials into water or soil, and their hefty methane emissions, which is a greenhouse gas. Methane is generated as trash decomposes underground, which is why it’s not uncommon to see a flame burning continuously at a site.
“But the truth of the matter is, we have to do something with our waste. And in Illinois, it has always been the cheapest alternative to landfill waste. And that's why it is still the solution that we turn to when we've done the recycling and waste reduction that we can,” he said.
Winnebago County‘s landfill is taking in more trash by the ton annually, more than any landfill in the region. The amount of annual gate cubic yards received increased 166% from 2014 to 2018.
The County spends their host agreement money on public infrastructure, and it measured more than $4.8 million in 2018. Winnebago doesn’t have its own county solid waste coordinator. That’s according to Winnebago County Interim Administrator Steve Chapman.
“Because I don't think there's a need for it. I mean, I don't think there's that much interaction between us and the landfill. If so then, you know, the individual department heads would deal with that...it’s a matter saving money too,” he said.
Instead solid waste responsibilities are laid on the municipalities and separate county offices like Public Works.
And a few counties south of Winnebago, Lee County’s landfill took in more than 50% less trash in 2018 than it did in 2014. According to the Lee County Administrator, their host agreement fees are spent on county recycling expenses, capital projects, or equipment.
Nationwide, people are having to rethink what to do with waste like single use plastic straws and shopping bags. Alex Truelove is the zero waste director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. He says changing old habits of consumption and disposal can be a challenge but also a chance for unprecedented improvement.
“We have like a big opportunity now, in this time, to really kind of rethink how our waste system works. And so what we have advocated for is, first of all, let's get the most harmful, but also the least recyclable and most contaminating materials out of our waste stream, because that'll help everybody,” said Truelove.
And something Truelove and environmental advocates agree on is that the words of the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” are in that order for a reason.