Curbside Recycling in Illinois – Challenges and Coverage

Illinois has a long history of championing recycling and composting programs, but it has a long way to go. Illinois generates about 19 million tons of garbage per year, which is 23 percent more waste per capita than the national average. Also, only 37 percent of that waste is recycled. Current recycling programs divert over seven million tons of useful materials from landfills and save enough energy to heat and light 578,000 homes. Each year, recycling in Illinois reduces water pollution by 21,500 tons of various contaminants and reduces air pollution by 131,000 tons of various contaminants each.

Illinois does not collect statewide recycling data, but data gathered at the municipal level shows the recycling rate in the state remains low. The national average in 2015 was just under 26 percent, and Chicago was at eight percent. Cook County was at 19 percent, with DuPage County and Naperville above the average at 29 percent in 2018.  A helpful list of items the can and cannot be recycled is found here. Illinois ranks 28th in the nation with a 20 percent recycling rate for common household materials. 

Across Illinois and the U.S., the recycling system overall is in decline. Some local governments have ended their curbside recycling programs, and other municipalities have reduced the list of materials they will accept. The collapse of international recycling markets and the dramatic rise in plastic production are big contributors to this issue. 

Starting in early 2018, East Asian governments began banning, limiting, or more heavily regulating U.S. recyclable exports. This ended the era of globalized waste trade. The decreased demand for recycled materials, the rise of plastic, and the lack of attention by product designers to create recyclable products are also major factors in the decline in recycling. 

Materials such as metal and cardboard have historically worked well in recycling, and there remains a marketplace for those products. Plastic, however, can only be recycled a few times and that involves an expensive and complicated process. The amount of plastic entering the recycling system has exploded from 20,000 tons in 1980 to more than three million in 2015. And that doesn’t include the 26 million tons of plastic in landfills and five million tons of plastic burned that same year. 

Recycling seems like a seamless solution to the plastic waste issue plaguing our nation’s oceans, air, and soil. But the recycling industry faces many challenges, including non-recyclable materials and regular trash items being put into recycling bins and containers. Workers in the recycling industry face risks, including chemical exposure, combustible dust explosions, machine guarding hazards, and exposure to powerful equipment with moving parts. Many municipalities lack the resources or support to enact an effective recycling system, with separate bins and safe recycling centers needed. There is a lack of demand for many recycled materials.