During the month of January, I learned a lot about recycling in Chicago. I first learned about recycling Christmas trees, the theme of my January Post. Then I attended an Environmental Chicago Industry event where the theme was… recycling! Two individuals who work for Independent Recycling Services, a privately-owned waste and recycling company, came to share their wealth of knowledge about the world of recycling.
As a kid in California, I can recall separate crates for sorting our recycling paper, glass, plastic, and so on. Then living on my own as a young adult in Sacramento, there were three bins: one for recycling, one for trash, and one for yard waste (Sacramento is the City of Trees, so yard waste warrants its own bin).
My first apartment in Chicago did not offer a recycling bin. This was a habit my roommate (also from California) and I could not shake. We would often find ourselves leaving plastic containers or the cardboard boxes of cereal next to our trashcan, until one of us would remember and just put them in with the trash. In the apartment I live in now, there is a recycling container next to the three trash dumpsters. But it’s just that, a big dumpster that could easily be confused for one of the trash dumpsters. To go from the days of sorting everything to this one big recycling dumpster, I was a little suspicious. You mean to tell me that I can throw anything recyclable away in there? Doesn’t it need to be separated? Everything these days is mechanized; you cannot expect me to believe that there is a real human being who sorts my recycling for me.
But according to the folks at IRS, there are indeed human beings sorting the recycling of its customers. 15 manual laborers, to be exact, go through the recycling they collect, by hand.
Single stream recycling, as it is called, is a system where you can throw all types of recyclable materials into one bin and they will be sorted by the collector. Which is pretty neat, since sorting can be cumbersome.
Another previously unknown (to me) aspect of the recycling industry I discovered was the Pulp and Paper Index, which they called “the Stock Market of recycling.” Independent Recycling Services know which recyclable materials have the highest value (white paper) and they even “hoard” their recycled material if the market value is low for certain recyclable materials, in the hopes that it will eventually rise again. I found it interesting to learn that Styrofoam is a negative profit commodity, but it makes sense since it is so light compared to the space it takes up.
When I used to take cans and bottles to redeem my 5-cent redemption value in California, the collectors made recyclers take the tops off the bottles. I can remember standing in the baking sun one summer, going through 6 five-gallon bags of bottles and removing their caps one by one. I don’t know if this policy has changed in California, but IRS shared that anything smaller than four inches gets lost in the process. So, it’s actually better to leave the cap on the bottle.
At the end, the presenter asked: Why are dumpsters bigger than little recycling bins when most stuff can be recycled? Or in my case, why is it a three to one ratio of dumpsters? The other day I saw a Waste Management truck drive by with a question painted on its side: What if we could use everything again? I only shared half of what I learned about recycling that night. The better informed the consumer becomes, the more efficient the recycler’s jobs becomes and we the consumers could recycle more than we do today.
A quick self-promotion: Monday, March 25th 5:30-8:30PM I will be talking to the Environmental Chicago Industry group about my work for the Metropolitan Planning Council on the Our Great Rivers initiative.