Before Zero Waste, We Must Get Back to the Basics

This week, we were happy to see the release of U.S. PIRG’s report, “Trash in America,” issuing a national call for a move toward zero waste. While a vision of a zero waste future is honorable and exciting, we’ve got some work to do to get there – especially here in the Midwest.

Across the country, a range of incentives and factors influence waste diversion, but the results vary by region.

The coasts tend to lead the way on waste management, which is partially driven by high landfill tipping fees, or the cost to dispose of waste at a landfill. On the densely populated East Coast it can cost over $100 per ton to landfill waste; whereas, the national average is $50/ton and Illinois averages $42/ton[i].

While some regions of the country seek to ban food and organics from the landfill by 2020, others, like the Midwest, need to tackle basic recycling before we set our sights on reducing food and organic waste.

Let’s zoom in on Cook County as an example.

The second most populous county in the U.S. with over 5 million residents, Cook County is home to over 130 individual municipalities, many of which take their own unique approach to tackling waste. Comparable to other counties in the Midwest, 44.6% of landfilled material from residential Cook County are recyclable materials (glass, metal, plastic and paper), which is a consequence of either lack of access to recycling services, misinformation, or disposal of materials from recycling facilities.

Delta sorts trash to audit contamination at the Field Museum

Cook County adopted a long-term zero waste goal in its 2012 Solid Waste Management Plan. While the County has succeeded in increasing reuse and recycling, the zero waste goal serves as a north star. No Cook County municipality has discontinued waste hauling. Moreover, many residents lack access to recycling and/or unknowingly mix recyclables with non-recyclables. While a zero waste goal for Cook County is not achievable in the near future, we can make meaningful strides at a systems level by addressing a few rudimentary issues.


1. Improve Access

Access to waste services is not consistent across Cook County. Even if a community does provide basic waste services, most suburban Cook County communities do not include multi-unit buildings in the waste and recycling collection contracts and franchise agreements. More importantly, many municipalities do not require those units to provide recycling. Some communities, like the City of Chicago, may require multi-unit buildings to provide recycling, but enforcement and consistency of service is lacking.

Municipalities can achieve greater consistency with their waste and recycling contracts by using best practices. As an organization that’s been waist-deep in our region’s waste contracts, we’re happy to share our procurement tools and tips with all municipal waste managers.


2. Reduce Costs

One of the barriers to access to municipal solid waste management is cost. Waste and recycling services together represent 10-15% of municipal budgets. The smaller your community, the greater the percentage of your budget waste and recycling will be. Larger municipalities have more households which helps to reduce costs.

Communities can reduce and slow cost escalation through better procurement strategies. One way smaller, resource-constrained municipalities can reduce their costs might be to team up with neighboring municipalities to establish a shared services contract. Additionally, neighboring communities might consider teaming up to provide special collection services for electronics, hazardous materials, or textiles.

Communities can also use “pay as you throw” models where residents directly save money when they reduce the amount of waste they dispose. Some communities require residents to purchase stickers for each waste bin and others charge households more for waste handling based on the number of bins they have. Typically these programs are supplemented by free recycling programs.


3. Educate Residents

Access to recycling is only the beginning, as general confusion is the greatest threat.

Confusion on the part of residents leads to the mixing of non-recyclable with recyclable materials, also known as “contamination” in the waste world, and contamination creates major cost and efficiency issues for waste haulers and recycling facilities. Specifically, placing recyclables in plastic bags or simply including plastic bags with your recycling results in contamination and shutdowns at recycling centers.

Many communities do not provide adequate education for residents on what products they can recycle, or how to recycle. Thirty-five percent of incorporated Cook County municipalities do not make online recycling educational information available. Access to a quick online reference would provide citizens with the information they need to recycle correctly, decreasing contamination.

It’s also important that the marketed information is consistent with what is actually recycled. The Recycling Partnership conducted a study in the Chicago metropolitan area and found that, of the 69% of municipalities that provided recycling information, 60% published lists of accepted materials that differed from the lists published by the material recovery facility that received the materials. This confusion, as well as lack of information, can create contamination issues and raise costs for recycling facilities.


We look forward to a time when zero waste is in reach, but for now, we need to tackle the basics. Investments in our regional waste infrastructure are needed, and they will yield not only environmental benefits but also economic and community benefits as well. Waste-based economic development holds significant potential for our region with respect to job creation in the expanded recycling, composting, processing, and collection of waste. You can read more about those potential benefits in this report.

And while much work lies ahead at the system level, there’s a lot you can do as a consumer to make an impact. Here’s a roundup of resources and organizations that can help you get informed and take action:


[i] Municipal Solid Waste Landfill Facts

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