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This is the first in an ongoing series of RoundTable stories about recycling. 

News about the effects of climate change — higher global temperatures, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, more droughts and wildfires — can make even the most optimistic of us feel hopeless about our planet’s future. 

So simple everyday actions often seem reassuringly helpful:  using canvas tote bags for shopping, walking or biking instead of driving, recycling that empty plastic water bottle instead of tossing it in the trash.  Choosing the “eco” option probably feels good, like we’re doing just a little something for the environment. 

Putting jars, cans, newspapers, junk mail, cardboard and plastic waste into the recycling stream is an eco option that is fairly easy and available to almost everyone in Evanston, mostly through weekly residential pick-ups in curbside carts.  When done right, recycling preserves natural resources by taking existing materials and turning them into something new.

Mixed recycling in an Evanston curbside cart. Credit: Meg Evans Smith

“Recycling is incredibly important,” said Brian Zimmerman, the City of Evanston’s Solid Waste Coordinator, noting that it saves landfill space, helps to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and often leads to more local jobs.  

“The less material we’re sending to the landfill, the less land we have to allocate for landfills, and we have to be cognizant of the space that material takes up,” explained Zimmerman.  “Plus, when food or cardboard and paper sit in a landfill, they start anaerobically digesting and that emits methane into the environment.”  

As for jobs, the U.S. recycling industry employs 1.25 million people – five times more than waste management – according to a 2020 recycling study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, with an annual payroll of more than $37 billion.  

Evanston scores high on recycling.

Our fair city currently has a curbside recycling rate of around 33%, according to the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC, pronounced “swank”) which facilitates waste collection, transfer, storage, disposal and more for its 23 member communities.  That means about a third of Evanston’s total waste is going into our recycling carts rather than garbage cans. 

“Evanston is one of our highest performing communities as far as the amount that they pull out of their trash,” said Christina Seibert, SWANCC’s Executive Director.  “The average across all our member communities is 23%, so they’re a full ten percent above where the average community would be.”   In 2021, Evanston residents kept almost 1,000 pounds of recyclable items per household from going into landfills, Seibert added.   

SWANCC coordinates the upcoming annual Evanston Recycles Collection Event on July 9, 2022, where residents can bring a variety of electronics, paper for shredding and old medications for disposal.

A mountain of recyclable materials at Groot’s Elk Grove Village materials recovery facility. Credit: Meg Evans Smith

Clearly we have room to improve, and there are many ways to level-up our recycling efforts.  But first, a little overview on what happens to all the recyclable goodies we put into our bins and carts. 

Local Recycling 101

Evanston residents can mix cans, bottles, paper, cardboard and plastic in their recycling carts.  (See a detailed list of acceptable items below.)  Those carts are emptied into City of Evanston trucks and taken to an Elk Grove Village materials recovery facility (MRF) operated by Groot, the company that picks up Evanston’s trash and yard waste.  At the MRF, Evanston’s recycling is added to a massive heap of recyclable waste from more than twenty other communities.  

A front-loader methodically shovels loads of recycling into Groot’s multi-story sorting operation which employs an array of belts, screens, fans, air jets, spinning wheels, robotics, optical sorters, PPE-clad sanitation workers and even gravity to separate items by category, pull out trash, and bale sorted items together.  The facility processes around 500 tons of recycling over two daily work shifts.   

Groot then sells the bales of plastics, paper, cardboard, crushed cans, and loads of glass to various recyclers as raw material that can be chopped, shredded, melted, pulped or otherwise processed and remanufactured into new goods.

Huge bales of cardboard and colored plastic bottles will be sold, processed and remade into new products. Credit: Meg Evans Smith

Prevent recycling hazards

The specifics of what and how to recycle — only certain plastics, keep caps on bottles and jars, no drinking glasses, no batteries, etc. — make the process more efficient.  Those rules also help eliminate serious problems that can arise during pickup, transport, sorting and baling, as some non-recyclable items can damage equipment and pose health risks to workers.   Waste and recycling ranks as the sixth most dangerous line of work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  

“Some of the most common hazardous materials are lithium batteries, propane tanks and non-depressurized aerosol cans, which can explode and cause fires,” explained Javier Erazo, the Groot District Manager who oversees the company’s MRF and trash station in Elk Grove Village.  If a discarded battery is sparked or overheats, it can ignite a whole load of dry paper products in a truck or on a sorting line, Erazo said.  One such spark caused a fire that burned down Groot’s Plainfield facility in May of 2021.  

Groot sees a lot of potentially hazardous biological waste, too, such as used face masks, latex gloves and other PPE (personal protective equipment), dirty diapers, and medical “sharps” — used needles, lancets, auto-injectors (e.g., Epipens) and the like that can stick a worker, requiring immediate medical attention and sometimes months of follow-up care. 

A bucket of medical “sharps” recovered during Groot’s sorting process. Credit: Meg Evans Smith

“We also have the struggle of film, plastic wraps and just tanglers in general — lights, extension cords, ropes, plastic grocery bags, garden hoses — that stuff tends to get wrapped up in our equipment and become dangerous to our sanitation workers,” Erazo said.  Tanglers have to be manually cut and removed by workers, which can pose further risk of injury.  “It’s a huge problem,” he added.  

Keep it loose.  

One of the simplest improvements we can make is to keep all recyclable items loose in the cart — don’t tie them into a plastic bag or else the whole thing will be tossed into the trash, said Steve Folkerts, Groot’s Elk Grove Village district manager.  For safety reasons Groot workers cannot cut into those bags in case they contain broken glass, medical sharps or other hazardous items.  

If you collect your recyclables in a plastic bag, dump the contents into the curbside cart when the bag is full.  You can re-use the bag to collect more recycling or take it with other plastic bags to a grocery store, the civic center, an Evanston library or one of Evanston’s community centers for plastic film recycling.

“I understand the desire to contain it in a bag, but it’s got to be a paper bag that stuff can just fall out of,” Folkerts added.  And a bonus is that paper grocery bags are recyclable.  

Wishcycling and the chasing arrows dilemma.

A lot of goods we buy have the familiar chasing-arrows recycling symbol, which is a good but unfortunately not 100% reliable indicator that an item is recyclable in our area.  In fact, some plastics — such as #6 polystyrene, the stuff of Solo cups — are rarely accepted by municipal recycling programs.  Still, if something looks recyclable it can be tempting to “wish-cycle” rather than throw it out.  Wish-cycling involves putting waste we think might or should be recyclable into our bins.  

The arrows on the bottom of a Solo cup make it tempting to put them in a recycling bin. But don’t! Solo cups aren’t recyclable in many municipalities. Credit: Meg Evans Smith

Some of the most commonly wish-cycled items are plastic grocery bags, electronics, batteries, children’s plastic toys, coolers, styrofoam packing materials and takeout containers, paper to-go coffee cups and straws.  Wish-cycled items will end up in a landfill anyway, said Cara Pratt, Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator for the City of Evanston, so it’s best to put them in the trash.

“That’s actually really damaging to recycling as an industry because depending on how much, depending on the contamination, the entire bin of recyclable materials could be rejected,” Pratt explained.  “When in doubt, throw it away.”

Reduce, refuse, reuse, repurpose, repair and more.

Evanston residents can do a lot to keep our city and our planet clean, and recycling is a good place to start.  But for all its benefits, recycling can be a complicated beast and in the coming months the RoundTable will run a series of related articles focusing on individual types of recycling including glass, metal, paper, plastics, composting (which is essentially recycling food), landfills, and more.  

Stories will also address how to reduce consumption, refuse non-recyclable packaging and single-use plastics, reuse certain items rather than throwing them away (or pass them along so others can use them), repurpose (or “upcycle”) items, and repair broken or worn items to make them last longer. 

We will also link to resources to help with specialized recycling such as toothbrushes, shoes, batteries, styrofoam, light bulbs and other items that aren’t allowed in curbside recycling bins.   SWANCC’s website hosts an interactive directory of recycling locations for those items and many more.  

Got recycling questions?  

Please send your questions about recycling to recycling@evanstonroundtable.com and we’ll do our best to answer them.  We also want your tips and ideas on recycling as well.  

How Evanstonians can level up our recycling.

Following are some recycling do’s and don’ts for Evanston residents.  The Groot website can provide more information and SWANCC offers a handy photo guide for recycling as well.

*Only put these recyclable items into your curbside cart:

Paper

Newspaper (with inserts)
Magazines, catalogs (glossy & non-glossy)
Telephone directories
Office paper, school Paper
Advertising and junk mail (remove plastic cards, sheets of self-stick labels)
Kraft brown paper bags
Corrugated cardboard
Paperboard/chipboard (cereal, pasta, clothing, and tissue boxes)

Plastic

Bottles, tubs, and jugs only

Metal

Aluminum cans
Steel or tin cans
Aerosol cans, depressurized (empty completely by spraying remaining contents into your sink or trash)

Glass

Bottles and jars only
Brown, green and clear glass

Aseptic Packaging

Juice Boxes, shelf-stable milk boxes, broth boxes
Milk, whipping cream and creamer cartons (the paper kind)

* Keep recyclables loose.  

Don’t bag recyclables — keep them loose. A paper grocery bag is acceptable as long as items can fall out freely; don’t tape or secure it shut.  

* Don’t put batteries, electronics, medical sharps, “tanglers,” pressurized aerosol cans, or other hazardous non-recyclables into your cart.

Stick to the list above and consult SWANCC’s Recycling Resource Directory [link to https://www.swancc.org/recycling/recycle-directory] for ways to recycle other items.  

* Shut the recycling cart lid completely so the contents stay inside and dry.

Soggy paper and cardboard are heavy and difficult to sort, which can interfere with properly sorting other recyclable items.

Methane is a natural gas byproduct of wetlands, volcanoes and other natural sources, as well as animal agriculture, the extraction, processing and burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), and landfills. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases are the most common greenhouse gases that trap heat inside Earth’s atmosphere and contribute to global warming. 

Recycling stats

  • 75% of America’s waste is recyclable but we recycle only around 30%.  Increasing the rate to 75% would be like removing 50 million passenger cars from U.S. roads and result in 2.3 million recycling industry jobs.
  • Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour – about 42,000 per minute, or about 695 per second — and each takes about 500 years to fully decompose.
  • Most of the 4 million tons of junk mail Americans receive annually ends up in landfills.
  • The U.S. recycles 33% of its glass waste while Europe recycles 90% of theirs.    
  • Aluminum can be recycled into new products repeatedly, quickly and inexpensively, yet Americans recycle less than 50% of their aluminum cans.

Source:  rubicon.com [https://www.rubicon.com/blog/statistics-trash-recycling/]

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...

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  1. There’s no reference here to used tires, which were picked up by the city in the past. Can the rubber be recycled? Now that we’re into the summer, they could be left out collecting rainwater, a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Shouldn’t something be said about this Mr. Zimmerman or Ms. Pratt?

  2. I am amazed that EV only recycles 30%. Please continue your series and repeat the information often.

  3. I walk in Evanston every day, and I pick up discarded aluminum cans in the street to put in recycling bins. I have actually kept count, and 60% of the time when I open a recycling bin to put in aluminum cans, I see plastic bags. Often the plastic bags are holding newspapers, which is ironic, and other times they hold other stuff which the owner thinks is recyclable. I get so angry just looking at all the contaminated recycling bins. This is not theoretical, this is observed, in Evanston, both in 60202 and 60201.

  4. Well done! Some of us remember youthful drives to pick up newspapers and steel cans for recycling during the 1950s Korean War. Some of us in media encouraged the advent of basic paper, glass, and metal recycling as public policy again in the 1970s. And yet, look at how far Europe (and Evanston) have come compared to most of the world (and other North Shore towns) — and how appallingly far we all have yet to go with glass (good), “tanglers” (bad), most other stuff (complex), and plastics (complex and worse).

    1. During the second world war we saved newspapers, cans, and boxes which were taken into town by farmers for the “war drive”. My school friends who lived in town would go around with their wagons and gather things from their neighbors.

      I remember my mother carefully checking items in the grocery store for jars that could be used in preserving food. Some of the jars were used for juice and water glasses. Bread came in waxed bags which we used for wrapping sandwiches to take in our lunches. Any kind of foil was carefully flattened and reused except for the foil on gum which went to my brother’s ever expanding ball of foil. My guess is that many of your readers have similar memories.