In Rural Illinois, It Takes Green To Go Green

Oct 16, 2019

Down the road from Ogle County’s Solid Waste office in Oregon is a can crusher. It looks like a top heavy white shed, a rectangle on top of a square.
 

You could bring your aluminum cans here and get 25 cents per pound for them. The operator, Dan Roos, said that’s if the computer that does the crushing ever gets fixed.

Cans are collected here, at the crusher, until it's functional again.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

“It'll be busier now,” said Roos as he looked over the piles of soda and beer cans strewn along the floor of the shed. “If I get anything fixed here soon, it’s busier now that they closed down. People are able to come over here. They weren't getting paid down there, they get paid here,” he said, talking about how Ogle County’s public recycling program was recently closed.

The program was shut down this year because of ballooning costs. It’s becoming harder to dispose of recycling and get a profit because of depressed international markets. When his can crusher is functioning properly, Roos said he stores a thousand pounds of the aluminum before loading them in a truck and selling them to recyclers in DeKalb, one county over.

“It’s efficiency for the community to have something -- to add to the community. Instead of having to just throw your waste away, and waste it. You can recycle it. We take it over there. They bail it and they recycle it,” he said.

Though the drop-off recycling bins have been taken away, Roos said he still has access to contracted curbside recycling for his home...at a price.

Dan Roos unlocks the door to his can crusher.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

Funding and environmental efforts like waste management go hand in hand in rural communities. Shantanu Pai is a researcher with the University of Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, and helps organizations manage their waste streams.

“We know very little about recycling in rural America today than we did in the 90's. And that, this is something -- it's hard to reach that community effectively, outside of doing surveys...” he said.

He said it’s typical for green initiatives to take a back burner when designated leaders have multiple jobs to balance in smaller towns.

“Resources aren't abundant in local communities, especially in rural Illinois. And priorities, rightfully so, get moved to places that are more pressing,” he said.

Hendrica Regez is one of these multitaskers. She’s a Jo Daviess County Board member. She also directs the city of Galena’s Green Team, a community non-profit.

“Galena is right now working on glass recycling because our waste management company does not pick it up anymore,” said Regez. She said this is because of costs; it's cheaper to make new glass than recycle the old.

Farm stands, like this squash table, are a common sight along rural roads at harvest time. Some farmers use stands to make extra revenue, and others aim to make sure all of the harvest's produce gets a use.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

She said Galena’s recycling goes to Iowa, and garbage goes to East Moline.

She said rural communities are getting left behind in environmental conversations. Physical access to places like Jo Daviess, a county with rolling acres of farmland and less than 23,000 people, is only by car. There’s no public transport to connect communities to each other.

 

“Most of us don't have really good internet and you kind of need to be connected to the cities, and they need to be out in the country. Because we are providing their clean air, clean water and food,” she said.

Regez said there are things to celebrate like local relationships. She’s got a special one with Galena’s grocery store. For example, she and other Galena Green team members sew old t-shirts into makeshift shopping bags. The group leaves them to use for free at the store’s entrance, hanging colorfully on a wooden stand. She said the market gives her old food to feed her family's chickens. 

Reusable bags hang for public use in the entrance of Galena's Piggly Wiggly's grocery store. They're made by Galena's Green Team.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

“We have some restaurants in town that give us their prep waste,” she said. “And so my chickens get that too.”

She’s introduced a Climate Action Plan to the County and said she wants to pioneer new environmental educational programs for all ages. She said she also wants a more circular economy -- one where every physical thing gets another use. People in her community simply call that recycling.

“I don't think they call it 'zero waste,'” she said. “But everybody is concerned about recycling and landfills. And pollution. ‘Zero waste’ is not really a buzzword yet.”

Regez is also a director in the Jo Daviess and Carroll County Joint Solid Waste Agency. They stand in for Solid Waste County Coordinators. The agency organizes two collection events per year for electronics, household items, and things that can be dangerous if put into a landfill. According to their treasurer, the agency’s budget is $14,000 a year and most of that goes to paying the salary of the executive director, Mark Maidak.

“Right now, our Solid Waste Agency doesn't own anything. It's just a group of interested citizens staging these collection events right now,” said Maidak.

Maidak said he came to the agency because he was affiliated with the University of Illinois Extension and the Northwest Illinois Green Fair, a localized event that was active nearly a decade ago. Maidak’s full-time gig is his seed business in Carroll County.

Mark Maidak stands in his seed warehouse next to plastic bags he reuses to sell products.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

He said his seed company cuts back on waste and cost by reusing plastic boxes to deliver products. Big white plastic bags are reused to transport product as well. Maidak said there aren’t any drop-off points, or county-funded dumpsters for rural recycling like Ogle County’s, in Carroll or Jo Daviess. 

“Many of the rural residents seem to try to connect with some of their friends in the towns and see if they can't get recycling done that way. There are some businesses that will allow you to go ahead and drop off some items,” he said.

To recycle means to pay -- for haulers, waste transfer stations, municipalities, and community members. Many people contract directly with waste companies to have large dumpsters on their property. But, Maidak said many rural residents aren’t taking up that extra cost. 

“Largely, those [recyclable or hazardous] items I am going to believe will end up in the trash that the rural residents have,” he said. 

Maidak said he burns his business trash, like paper bags, in an old rusty tire rim, because of cost.

“We probably burn maybe twice a month during the active part of the season; in the winter time, probably not at all," he said.

According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, most cases of open burning is illegal in the state of Illinois. But enforcement is a different story. James Jennings is the Manager of Waste Reduction and Compliance with the IEPA.

“With every case that we examine, we evaluate the totality of the factors and certainly the lack of alternative viable options for waste removal is among those. Something that we recognize is that not every jurisdiction in Illinois has the infrastructure luxury of building an established curbside waste pickup,” said Jennings.

Credit Sarah Jesmer

Jenning said Illinois is working on creating a task force that will standardize waste management statewide, sparked by the recent passage of HB3068.

“Ultimately, it will serve as the foundation for solid waste and recycling management for Illinois for the foreseeable future. So it's an exciting undertaking at this point. We have at least tentative commitments from nearly all of the local government representatives, from members of the environmental community [and] members of waste industry retailers,” said Jennings. 

 

The group hasn't been formed yet, but Jennings said they’re aiming for Task Force results and a plan by 2021.

Rural residents might have challenges to face in their conservation efforts but Regez in Jo Daviess said despite having a low number of disposal options, it's still worth it to try.

“I don't think we're underserved,” she said about having limited disposal options within her region.

Managing waste responsibly comes case by case but one things clear: It takes green to go green.