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Thursday, May 8, 2003 02:20 pm

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

Recycling brings out the best

Ginny Lee

Last Saturday was a good day. In the morning I shopped it up at a neighborhood yard sale. I came home with a chinchilla stole ($4) to wear on Halloween, a vintage handmade felt Christmas stocking decorated profusely with sequins ($2), a yellow twig dogwood shrub ($5), and a handful of trinkets. I even found a 1971 copy of Le petit prince (for a quarter),originally priced at "95 cents, slightly higher in Canada." The powers that be were smiling on me.

Then things got even better. I had been looking forward to the fifth semi-annual hazardous waste drive, put on by the Illinois EPA , the City of Springfield, and Sangamon County. I had already checked my various stashes--in the basement, darkroom, attic, bathrooms, garage--looking for old paint and other chemicals.

I packed all the stuff in my car and arrived at Gate 7 of the State Fairgrounds at 1:15 p.m. Volunteers handed out brochures on what was hazardous waste and how to dispose of it. Then I was directed into one of two slow-moving lanes.

As we snaked along the drive, I tuned in National Public Radio and caught part of my favorite show, This American Life. Then I heard a news story about the Pope exhorting the youth of Spain to be "artisans for peace." What a phrase! Bless you, sir. If I were home working in the backyard, I thought, I'd miss hearing this great stuff on the radio.

I glanced around at my fellow recyclers. Ahead of me was a Volkswagen van with a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker. Beside me was a sedan with a "Bush/Cheney" bumper sticker. Ahead of them was a Buick Riviera with a "Marines" bumper sticker. And behind me was a fidgety young fellow with a shaved head driving an old pickup. What a cross-section of America!

I began to feel a sense of community, just like I'd felt earlier at the yard sale, talking with neighbors, everyone enjoying the day. We were doing something important: We were on a mission to recycle.

Signs directed us to "Stay in Your Car." Volunteers directed traffic flow and organized the unloading of cars. Yes, we didn't even have to get out of our cars! At one check point a volunteer surveyed the crowd, asking how we learned of the event, whether we brought items from friends or family, and if we were from the city or the county. Very scientific.

The whole operation took me 37 minutes, from entering Gate 7 to exiting the Fairgrounds. I have never before experienced such an efficient, organized event sponsored by governmental agencies. According to Wynne Coplea, head of the city's department of waste and recycling, dozens of volunteers began arriving at 6 a.m., along with off-duty firefighters, who have been trained to handle hazardous waste. More than 1,500 vehicles showed up to recycle. "This is the biggest recycling event in the state outside of Chicago," said Coplea.

Dave Saladino of the IEPA estimated it would cost $100,000 to $150,000 to dispose of all the materials brought in. The county chipped in $25,000. "People ask me why we don't have more of these, but it's expensive," Saladino said. While the event officially ended at 3 p.m., workers sorted materials until 11.

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