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Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 12:22 am

The recycling drop-off

Reusing resources doesn’t always add up in Sangamon County



Saving the world, even this very small part of it, is a tricky business in every sense of the word. Lake Area Disposal is closing its popular recycling drop-off center, at least for a while, after losing money on it for a couple of years. The closing of the drop-off center does not mean that recycling will stop – the firm’s blue bins program will be unaffected – but it does mean that recycling all the stuff that you can’t, or shouldn’t, put into curbside bins will become less convenient. Which means that fewer people will do it, or do it less diligently.

As a general rule, people will do very little that is good if it not also convenient. Here’s an example. In 2012, the U.S. diverted about a third of the solid waste generated by businesses and homes into recycling. In 2012, the rate in the state of California was twice that. In the county of Marin, where I lived for a while, the diversion rate was 75 percent. Not the best in California, but good. Why? Mainly because it’s easy.

My curbside program used three carts, including one just for yard waste (leaves, grass, branches) and kitchen scraps (the usual plus tea bags, pizza boxes and soiled paper and waxed products and sawdust), all of which were picked up weekly to be shredded and composted. Hardware stores accept fluorescent bulbs and dead batteries; fundraising groups set up rotating weekend collections of metal and e-waste in the lot of local shopping malls. Metal scavengers roam the neighborhoods like the turkey vultures that circle overhead and keep the landscape clean of old shelves and patio chairs and pots and pans.

In Marin’s biggest town is a complex of hangar-like buildings that covers 100 acres, which is roughly the area of downtown Springfield from Third Street to Ninth and from Jefferson down to Edwards. Call it Waste World and you could sell tickets to see it. It’s where every manner of solid waste goes not to die but to be reborn. Old drywall (the paper part is dried, fluffed up and sold to veterinarians and animal hospitals for use in kennels and the gypsum is sold to farmers as a soil additive), concrete (ground up into gravel used for road base) and dirt and rocks (ground into fine topsoil). The place also offers a document shredding service and, it being Marin County, a place to drop off used wine corks.

A garage cleanup left me with the usual witch’s brew of old paint, garden poisons, antifreeze and toxic cleaners, so I loaded it up and headed off to Waste World’s hazardous waste drop-off site for households and small businesses. I drive up and stop at a gate. Three men in haz-mat suits appeared. Two men set to work emptying the boxes in the back while the third, clipboard in hand, checked off the contents for the required signed inventory. I was done in five minutes. Never left the car.

So why can’t Springfield have nice things too? In order for recyclers to make money in a down market, their collection has to be efficient and the quality of the stuff they collect has to be high. The former relies on manufacturers, who are putting more products in packaging that can’t efficiently be recycled or using less of the materials that can. The latter relies on members of the public, who are confused about what is recyclable and lazy about not mixing garbage with recyclables.

The success of recycling, then, depends a lot on the local culture. The Springfieldians who are committed and informed about recycling are no less committed or informed than their Marinite counterparts. The problem is that such people constitute a much smaller share of the population, which means smaller constituencies for efficiency-minded local government programs. (Marin County’s official goal is zero waste by 2025; the city of Springfield pretends that solid waste is a private sector problem, not a public one.) Marin’s local environment predisposes residents to think environmentally. (An old friend and colleague of mine once was chided by a colleague for not being an enviro; “If I lived in Montana,” he explained, “I’d die for the environment.”) And California has a container deposit law, so you get paid (actually, paid back) for recycling empties.

Springfield can, theoretically, change laws. But we can’t change the fact that Sangamon County’s population is only about 75 percent the size of Marin (which means smaller markets for recycling services) who generate less total waste generated (which means fewer economies of scale in collecting it and processing it). Nor can we change the fact that Marin sits 2,000 miles closer to the Asian outlets for recycled materials than does Lake Area Disposal.  

In the longer run, the solution is to just ban the use of materials that can’t be recycled or impose deposits and other price mechanisms to make used materials worth too much to throw away. In the short run, I guess you could pile your stuff in the car and drive it to Marin. I suggest you get there early. And don’t forget your wine corks.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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