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A series looking at zero waste in northern Illinois

Fixing Mistakes And Addressing Inequality In Recycling

Claire Buchanan

You know that triangle symbol you see on plastic? That doesn’t mean it’s recyclable. That’s just the manufacturer telling you what kind of resin it’s made of.

Jennifer Jarland is the Recycling Program Coordinator for Kane County. She says when recycling plastic, “You gotta stick to the bottles, tubs, jugs and jars only.”

Credit Claire Buchanan
Jennifer Jarland

Jarland says a lot of people are already trying to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but sometimes they make mistakes.

“People want to do the right thing.” Jarland added, “People want to recycle. So they're putting a lot in the bin.” For example, the plastic pouches that a lot of foods come in aren’t recyclable, but they often make it into recycling bins anyway.

Jessica Mino is the Resource Management Coordinator for Kane County. She says it’s also important to consider a product’s entire lifespan. The packaging consumers see by the time they get to the checkout line is only a small part of the waste that went into producing it.

Jessica Mino

She says, “Both food, clothing, most things we buy, are pretty water consumptive. It takes a lot of water to go into those to actually produce those things. And you have the raw materials that make it as well… Then they need to be transported to the storefront…”

For that reason, she says repurposing old items can go a long way toward reducing waste. Another step you can take? Look at your garbage before you bring it to the curb this week.

Jarland says to look closely at what you’re putting in your curbside landfill bin. She says, “Start small, you know, one thing at a time, just look at that and go, 'Wow, there are 14 of these things, whatever, be it pouches or something that's going in your garbage. How can I change that equation?' So look at what it is that's your biggest piece of your garbage pie and think about how you could change that and reduce it.”

Credit Claire Buchanan
Lots of food is packaged in these non-recyclable plastic pouches.

That “garbage pie” refers to a chart Jarland points to, illustrating the composition of residential waste in Illinois. 22% is paper and 14% is plastic. And about a quarter represents organic materials like landscape waste and food scraps. When those organic materials break down in a landfill, they produce methane. But when it’s composted correctly, those emissions are reduced and nutrients return to the soil. 

Credit Kane County Solid Waste Management and Resource Recovery Plan

In addition to composting organic material, recycling properly and reusing items could go a long way. “I did a calculation once before,” Jarland says, “and I feel like probably if we were really, really good at recycling and were able to recycle everything possible… there'd only be about 10% of that left that would go in the landfill. I think 90% of it is probably recoverable.”

What’s the holdup then? 

Not everyone has access to the same recycling options. In Kane County, where Jarland and Mino work, an ordinance requires multifamily buildings like apartments and condos to provide their residents with recycling bins.

But Jarland adds, “And then I live in the city of Chicago actually, and there's whole swaths of the city that are lower income, where they don't have the infrastructure to even recycle.”

DeKalb County also has multifamily buildings without recycling. 

Jarland says improving access isn’t a quick fix:

“I don't have the answer to that. I know that a lot of these more sustainable products and things have more cost to them. And that's unfortunate. But it is shifting. The more people that buy them, you know, the demand will make the price go down. But until then, I'm not sure. But I am curious... I don't know if you can ask your listeners, 'Who has ideas?’ and then see what you get back.”

Sounds like some homework before you set out this week’s trash.

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