Clean This Spring with a Clear Conscience: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink
Families want to do the right thing. But determining what exactly can be recycled often is tricky. Aren’t old-fashioned light bulbs trash and the LED bulbs, which are ecologically friendly, recyclable? Or is it the other way around?
Hey, you. You’re educated. You care about the environment and diligently fill your blue recycling bin for your suburb’s curbside pickup. You ordered a pizza recently, dutifully scraped off the cheese remnants on the box and tossed the cardboard into the recycling bin.
You made a big mistake. Your pizza box is headed to a Material Recycling Facility, or an MRF. But it won’t be there for long. A worker on an assembly line, or perhaps an automated device, will pluck the miscreant box from the moving muck of legitimate recyclables and redirect it to a landfill. The pizza may have been outstanding and your intentions good, but you subtly sabotaged the recycling process, costing time and money.
“You can’t get grease out of cardboard,” says Kay McKeen, founder and director of SCARCE (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education), a Glen Ellyn-based champion of recycling.
So it goes with recycling. Families want to do the right thing. But determining what exactly can be recycled often is tricky. Aren’t old-fashioned light bulbs trash and the LED bulbs, which are ecologically friendly, recyclable? Or is it the other way around? How about household batteries, Styrofoam and meat trays from the grocery store? And is there an environmentally sound way (as well as an inexpensive option) to dispose of cell phones, paints, TVs and lawn mowers?
‘Tis the season for cleaning and uncluttering. This is a spring cleaning story with a (green) twist, a primer on properly disposing of items year-round. From this spring forward, resolve to embrace a resolution to recycle with a high environmental IQ. Instead of throwing away portions of the earth (every man-made item is a teensy-tiny scrap of our planet, after all), into a landfill be a consumer with a conscience, a citizen with regard for the preciousness of our beautiful blue planet’s resources.
A to Z Recycling Guide
In a vast industrial park off busy Route 59 in Naperville, two workers in protective clothing and gloves unload from cars jars and bottles filled with murky liquids. Asked what is dropped off, a worker replies, “You name it. Lots of motor oil and (oil-based) paints.” Accepted here at the Household Hazardous Waste Facility from all Illinois residents — workers will ask what town you live in for records purposes only — are aerosol cans, batteries, CFLs (the energy-saving compact
The facility is part of the Environmental Collection Campus, which also collects scrap metal and electronics. Today, the bin for the metal is filled with gutters, a typewriter, mattress frames — and a glass basketball backboard.
“Someone put that in when I wasn’t here,” says a worker with a shake of his head.
The Naperville site is one of dozens of collection sites for unwanted goods that dot the western suburbs. They’re hosted by governments, large companies and even smaller mom-and-pop businesses that can squeeze a few bucks from what has lain dormant in garages and basements.
But before detailing these, it helps to know a few basics of recycling, to avoid both an unnecessary trip and to preclude contaminants being directed to MRFs and landfills.
Glass, metal and paper are the primary materials for curbside recycling. But even that can get tricky. Metal includes steel and aluminum containers as well as foil. Glass encompasses bottles and jars only. Paper means cardboard (please flatten), newspaper, magazines and office paper. Cartons also qualify. By no means use a plastic bag for these items in your curbside recycling bin.
The average person who recycles can’t know how the materials eventually will be repurposed, but items are recyclable precisely because they can be relatively easily handled and then converted into goods. It’s a cycle of life in our modern, consumer society.
“What’s able to be recycled has to be able to be sorted and turned into something that can be marketed,” says Jennifer Jarland, the recycling program coordinator for Kane County.
Recycling certainly adds to the toll on the environment, but across the board it’s a substantially smaller burden than starting from scratch.
Recycling paper takes 40 percent less energy than needed in using a fresh tree. Recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy than using new mineral oil. Recycled plastics use 33 percent less energy than if fossil fuel was tapped.
Did someone say “plastic”? The older guy counseling young Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in 1969 in “The Graduate” was prescient -— plastics are the future. Plastics are our present. Plastics are our problem. There are hundreds of types of plastics, and 46 of them are commonly used. Only some can be recycled.
Don’t mistake the wavy, looped green recycling arrows found on packages to mean the item is recyclable. The arrows come with a number, which simply means the type of resin used. The symbol is partly a result of state laws and partly a sly corporate ploy to fool consumers into thinking they are purchasing an environment-friendly product.
The rule of thumb for recycling plastics is containers, and that means only bottles, tubs, jugs and jars. That begs the question: how clean must the containers be? First, try the dishwasher to clean. Then inspect. “A tiny bit of food is fine. Ideally, it would be free of it,” says Jarland.
Other quick tips: give a good shake to containers that held liquids. Don’t crush milk containers (it makes them harder to sort). Put the caps and lids back on containers (otherwise they fall through cracks on the assembly line). Do not throw “tanglers” like wires, hoses, chains and ropes in recycling bins. Assembly lines can’t handle them.
Egg cartons are a perfect example of an item households often recycle wrongly. Cardboard cartons can be recycled or, better yet, tossed in compost. Foam cartons are made from polystyrene. This material can be recycled at Dart Container Corporation in Aurora. The facility accepts: “polystyrene foam including post-consumer foam cups and “to-go” containers, egg cartons, ice chests, rinsed meat trays, protective packaging foam (used to protect electronics during shipping), and other foam with the #6 inside the chasing arrows triangle.”
Where There Is a Product and a Will, There Is a Way to Recycle
• Air Conditioners: The Crusher in West Chicago generally pays five cents a pound to take items off your hands.
• Appliances: The Crusher takes many smaller appliances, and your local waste hauler may take them away for a fee. ComEd pays $50 for a working refrigerator and $25 for smaller appliances.
• Batteries (household): A potential fire hazard, these may contain lead and mercury. So place tape over the tops and put them in a clear, resealable plastic bag. The Hazardous Waste Facility in Naperville accepts them. Recycling events in various suburbs will accept them and numerous drop-off locations also exist.
• Bicycles: Working Bikes, (773) 847-5440.
• Carpet, carpet padding: Toss in the garbage.
• CDs, DVDs: SCARCE takes the disks but toss the cases in the garbage. Your library may take the CD or DVD. SCARCE accepts LP records but not Liberace or Lawrence Welk (that’s a joke).
• Cell phones: Best Buy, SCARCE in Glen Ellyn and various sites such as Burr Ridge Public Works, Elmhurst Public Works, the Naperville Collection Campus and Wheaton Public Works.
• Clothes: Goodwill, the Salvation Army and the myriad drop-off boxes at parking lots. Clothes are extremely under-recycled — a whopping 85 percent of all discarded textiles wind up in landfills. Many people hesitate to recycle worn or outdated clothes. Forget about that — clothes not fit for wearing are turned into rags or insulation blankets.
• Computers/computer equipment: Ah, the mother lode of modern America. With the exception of SCARCE, the same sites listed under cell phones take computers. Multiple other options are listed on the Kane County recycling website. Best Buy can be properly saluted as Best Recycler. It’s collected more than 1 billion pounds of electronics and appliances. Limit three items per household daily.
• Light bulbs: The old-fashioned light bulbs are not recyclable and go into the trash. The energy-saving CFL bulbs are accepted at the Naperville hazardous waste facility or for a fee at some Home Depots, Lowe’s and Ace Hardware stores.
• Medications: Absolutely don’t flush down the toilet. Various Walgreens and police stations as well as some big-box stores, hospitals and clinics accept medications.
• Microwaves: The Crusher in West Chicago or your curbside hauler for a fee.
• Packing peanuts: Shipping and packing stores such as UPS will reuse clean, bagged and unmixed foam peanuts. Or contact the Peanut Hotline www.epspackaging.org, 800 828-2214.
• Paint: Oil-based paint is collected at the hazardous waste site in Naperville. For a fee, hardware stores and various local recycling events will take latex paint. Or, after drying out a can with kitty litter or sawdust, toss the paint can into the trash.
* Televisions: Yes, we can fly to the moon but getting rid of those smaller-screen old televisions without paying a fee is well-nigh impossible. The Naperville electronics site and Best Buy, as well as annual suburban recycling events and other sites (see the Kane County recycling site), typically charge $25 to $35 for TVs, including modern flat-screens. Goodwill accepts for free high-definition and flat-screen TVs.
The Kane County website has a complete A to Z recycling list (google “Kane County A to Z recycling”). Its recycling pages, an exhaustive, gold-standard compendium of valuable information, is the second most visited site of the county website, trailing only the taxes pages. (Sorry, Ben Franklin, in modern-America, where death is a taboo topic, the only certainties are taxes and befuddlement over what to do with all the stuff we accumulate.)
Creative and Upcoming Recycling Opportunities
You may listen to the Smashing Pumpkins, whose lead singer, Billy Corgan, grew up Glendale Heights. Well, last fall, the Saturday after Halloween, in an event completely unrelated to the musical group, teenagers in La Grange Park gathered for a messy but wildly fun Pumpkin Smash. The teens pulverized 700 pumpkins and the sticky mess was mixed with leaves, twig and branches. Instead of ending up in a landfill, the pumpkins were converted into valuable compost.
Begun in 2014 by Glen Ellyn-based SCARCE and now held in dozens of towns, Pumpkin Smash has diverted more than 163 tons of pumpkins from landfills.
SCARCE also holds a Cooking Oil Collection Day the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It helped establish nine permanent cooking oil collection sites in the western suburbs. Beats clogging up your pipes.
Upcoming recycling “extravaganzas” in the western suburbs include:
• Wheaton community parking lot, Carlton and Liberty, April 6: Documents, syringes, paints and mercury thermometers, thermostats and barometers.
• Elmhurst College, April 13: Many items accepted including building materials such as cabinets, doors and windows, home goods such as furniture, curtains and sporting goods, clothing, paper, bikes, books, CDs, LPs and musical instruments.
• Glen Ellyn, College of DuPage, April 27: Documents, batteries, bikes, home goods and more.
Other recycling extravaganzas are scheduled in Burr Ridge, River Forest, Naperville and elsewhere. For details, Google “scarce recycling events.” The recycling events are open to residents of other towns.
Caryl Riley of Aurora fondly remembers the newspaper and can drives of her youth while growing up in Park Ridge. It was a way to raise funds for good causes. It also raised her awareness. “I had a teacher who said think about ‘throwing it away. There is no away.’ It ends up in the ocean or a landfill,” she says.
Goodwill: It's All Good
An ultimate greenhouse of sorts, Goodwill is a reliable, multifaceted option for the reuse component of recycling.
Today, in its Westchester store, there are no less than 3,600 items on the floor. There are no kitchen sinks but practically everything else: china cabinets, sofas, bookshelves, toys, clothes, computers, clock radios, CDs, books, tricycles and sports equipment. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, come back the next day and it may be here.
Outside, pulling up in a marked lane, a steady stream of cars and trucks unload unwanted wares. Goodwill does not accept items with liability issues such as cribs or hazardous chemicals but pretty much everything else — with a few exceptions — is welcomed.
Worker Armando Jimenez hustles with a cart from one vehicle to the next. His days are a whir and blur of received goods. “We basically take everything,” he says. “We can’t say no.”
The Humble Pizza Box
It’s true that a humble item such as a pizza box encapsulates the complexities of recycling. Before trashing the grease-smeared bottom, rip off the top and compost it. Also dispose properly of the tiny “Barbie table” that may have sat atop your pizza. It’s a small, throwaway trinket. It’s one of the 46 common plastics — but not one that is recyclable.Edit Module