Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Coming Soon, to a Park Near You....

On a sleety, snowy night, I was on my way home after an evening out when I caught a glimpse of what looked like a recycling drop-off center at the park by my home. Could it be?!? A convenient place to drop off my recyclables? No more twenty-minute commutes with a trunkful of paper, glass, and aluminum? I could hardly believe my eyes! Visibility was low because of the fog and other precipitation, but I was curious enough to venture out in the elements the next day to confirm my suspicions. There, in the parking lot just a block away, stood an official City of Chicago drop-off bin, a shining blue eco-beacon amidst the snow, salt residue, and city sludge.

I ran right home to retrieve my recycling-- I couldn't bag it fast enough! The best thing of all was when I went back to the park with my recycling in tow and opened the first door to deposit my recyclables, only to discover that the container was full! I had to try three more lids before I found just enough space to squeeze my two garbage bags into the receptacle. I think that speaks volumes about the need in this city for convenient recycling options. I checked the City of Chicago Web site to see how many other locations had been added this past year. While the site still only listed the original sixteen drop-off locales, the map below had nearly twice as many locations flagged, and when I ran my mouse cursor over each, the corresponding address popped up. Let's hope this number continues to double exponentially in the coming year!

So if you're like me and have been going to great lengths to recycle your everyday waste, be on the lookout for a drop-off site at a park or local college near you-- this earth-friendly task may soon be much easier to do!

Recycle Those Trees!

Christmas is over, and for most people, that means that the decorations must come down. But what to do with the decorations that can't be put back into storage, such as the live trees and wreaths and garland? I hate seeing the lovely Douglas firs and blue spruces and Norwegian pines that lent themselves so beautifully to the holiday decor of many a Chicago home cast heartlessly onto the curbs and into the alleyways to be picked up with the trash, especially when the city has a better solution! From Saturday, January 3rd through Friday, January 16th, the City of Chicago will be accepting trees at the following locations for recycling.

The service has been expanded from a couple of Saturdays to nearly two weeks, due to the overwhelming response in recent years. There are some other changes, though-- the city will not be collecting regular recyclables at these locations like it has in the past, and it sounds like, instead of blue bags or a free CFL bulb, the city will be offering bagged mulch to recyclers (albeit on a limited basis). The city will then use the extra mulch from the recycled trees on gardening and landscaping projects throughout the city later this spring.

So look out the window the next time you're on the el-- the trashed trees that are leaning against the dumpsters are very easy to see from this heightened vantage point-- and try to envision how much landfill space those discarded trees will needlessly be filling. That's a lot of mulch!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Now That's ALDI Smart!

At first glance, Aldi customers are a strange and varied bunch. They bring their own bags, wagons, or suitcases into the store, they unload crates of food then stock the shelves and reuse the boxes, they bag their own groceries, and they never leave their carts in the middle of the parking lot. While the extra effort on the customer's part is largely to avoid paying five- to ten-cents per bag and to retrieve the 25-cent deposit required to use a cart, and the minimal services on the store's part save money, space, and labor, this economic business endeavor has become-- albeit inadvertently-- an environmental one as well.

Aldi is short for Albrecht Discount, named after owners and brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht. Based in Germany, Aldi is one of the largest grocers in the world. This discount chain now ranks among the top twenty five groceries in the United States, with Chicago being its largest American market. Aldi does not accept checks or credit cards, only cash, debit, or food stamps, as the former payment methods cost too much to process. Because the shopping experience is such a do-it-yourself endeavor, Aldi saves a great deal on labor and passes these savings on to the customers. Other, larger grocers employ baggers, stockers, and cart corralers, and conversely pass these added expense on to their customers.

With an inexpensive, yet varied (and tasty!) store brand, Aldi rarely stocks name brands or products other than their own. That said, they do sometimes carry brand-name products on special, such as Goose Island root beer or Ritz crackers. Finding such gems at exceptionally low prices is always a treat! While the Jewels and the Dominicks carry 35 times as many products, most of these are different brands of identical products, and this requires nearly four times the square footage and shelf space as the typical Aldi store.

Most of the stores I've been into are clean and unpretentious. This no-frills operation was years ahead of its time in the practice of charging for bags. It doesn't waste money on fancy displays, and rarely stocks more than it can sell, which significantly cuts down on the amount of food it throws away. I particularly like that these stores carry 90% of the products consumers buy most. The produce section is usually a pleasant surprise, and the meat department has improved greatly in recent years.

There are 157 Aldi stores in the Chicagoland area, and 31 of these are in the city itself. When I shop there, I rarely spend more than $25 on a week's worth of groceries. So if you haven't been into an Aldi before, grab a bag (and a quarter for the cart) and see for yourself what great deals await you. I would recommend staying away at the beginning of the month, though-- that's when the LINK/WIC people get their monthly government handouts-- the place is a madhouse. But do try and support this economically and environmentally efficient business model during the remaining three weeks of the month, and save up to 40% on your groceries. Now THAT'S Aldi smart!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Closing the Loopholes

Loopholes, both in the manufacturing process and in the legislature, greatly hinder efforts to improve the recycling rate of aluminum cans. Aluminum is a valuable commodity, a source of revenue from which the beverage industry, waste haulers, scrap yards, retailers, and consumers all want to benefit, but few are willing to fund an improved and expanded recycling program. This battle has weighed heavily on the efforts of both state legislatures and Congress to pass the sweeping reforms necessary to overhaul the way in which aluminum is reclaimed and recycled, and this ongoing political infighting has, as it so often does, detracted from the issue at hand.

That said, the other major hurdle to the aluminum recycling dilemma lies in the political arena. One of the many loopholes in our current system of government allows large and powerful corporations to send lobbyists to Capitol Hill, and the beverage industry is no exception. These corporations spend tremendous amounts of money to persuade lawmakers to support legislation that would help the companies maximize profits, and to vote against bills that do not support their own special interests.

According to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide, “Bottle bills have been 'bottled up' in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress for over two decades, seldom getting to the floor for a full vote. They are generally defeated in small committees, often by a narrow margin. These defeats are due to the tremendous influence the well-funded, politically powerful beverage industry lobby wields over our elected officials.” Indeed, the opponents of bottle bill legislation have banded together to fight a number of ballot initiatives involving the implementation or expansion of bottle bill programs, both at the state and national levels.

With industry opponents spending more than 30 times what proponents of the bill are able to afford, it comes as little surprise that most of these bills are defeated. In 1996, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported that the beverage industry spent more than $14 million between 1989 and 1994, aimed at persuading politicians to vote against the National Bottle Bill, and that in 1992, the U.S. Senate Committee members who did vote against the National Bottle Bill received 75 times the amount of PAC money that bottle bill supporters did.

Opponents argue that bottle bills would cause costs to rise among bottlers, distributors, and retailers, and cause jobs and sales to fall in the manufacturing sector. It seems to me that if they spent less money bribing politicians and more money on solving the problems caused by their production of disposable beverage containers, they could put millions of dollars into recycling initiatives, and still come out ahead! Opponents even claim that bottle bills would “rob” curbside recycling programs of valuable aluminum, thus reducing revenue. Although compelling, a closer look at these arguments shows them to be largely untrue.

First, curbside recycling programs are only available to 50% of the country, which means that half the population has no easy way to recycle. Although the number of curbside recycling programs has more than tripled since 1990, this method does not capture an acceptable amount of used beverage containers—the percentage of aluminum cans that are recycled has in fact decreased from 65% in 1992 to 43% in 2006. In states that have both bottle deposits and curbside recycling, research shows that the increased recycling rate comes largely from diverting cans from the waste stream and not from municipal recycling bins—unclaimed deposits range from 15-30% in most instances, and a number of these unredeemed cans appear in curbside bins.

Although the initial cost of implementing a deposit program is more expensive than other methods, it becomes more effective and cost-efficient in the long run. A number of companies, government agencies, and environmental organizations joined forces in 2000 and hired a bunch of consultants to analyze the cost and effectiveness of beverage container recycling of the current recycling methods. Among their findings was that, for an added expense of about 1.5 cents per six-pack, the recovery rates were 25 times higher in states that had bottle deposit programs than they were in states without these bottle bills.

Beverage distributors used to take empty bottles back to the plant to be cleaned, sanitized, and reused; if they were able to take back-hauling out of their system, they also have the ability to put it back in. Although beverage container waste costs money to recycle, just as it does to throw away, with the deposit method, producers and consumers shoulder the cost, instead of government and taxpayers. This creates a powerful incentive for manufacturers to eliminate unnecessary waste and reduce the amount of toxic substances used, and eases the burden on cities and states facing financial crises and budget deficits, as the cost is no longer borne by the taxpayers.

Some organizations are pushing for the implementation of extended producer responsibility, or producer take-back programs, which would require producers to take full responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, from product design to end-of-life management. Many countries began adopting these standards in the 1990s but, for whatever reason, the U.S. has been reluctant to sign on.

Although the U.S. clearly has a ways to go to cut wasteful production and utilize recyclable materials, there is much room for improvement. Concerned citizens should demand their politicians to step up and denounce the lobbyists, and call for a change in the way this country handles its recyclables. Most importantly, we need to keep used beverage containers out of the waste stream—a myriad of solutions exist, we just need to fight to ensure their implementation, and hope these changes will come about sooner rather than later.

Aluminum Can Recycling

Aluminum is made from bauxite ore and other natural resources. However, aluminum is the only material that is currently 100% recyclable, which means that, once the metal is made, it can be recycled indefinitely. The process of recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the energy that would be required to make the same amount of aluminum from virgin materials. Although some groups estimate the energy savings to be closer to 75-80% than the 95% that is so popularly quoted, they instead break down the savings by cost. In the 1980s, one ton of virgin aluminum ore was $1,933, while the same amount of recycled aluminum totaled a mere $313, which is a net savings of $1,620 per ton—still a significant amount.

Since most recycled aluminum is turned back into beverage containers, the EPA stresses that the materials must be source separated, clean, and dry so processors can “…generate only high-quality scrap. The recovered aluminum containers must be free from steel, lead, ferrous materials, bottle caps, plastics, glass, wood, dirt, grease, trash, and other foreign substances.” Once the aluminum is separated, it is condensed into 1,200-pound bales and shipped from the scrap yards to aluminum processing and manufacturing plants. After workers strip the outer decorations from the cans, the aluminum is shredded and fed into a melting furnace.

At this point, the recycled aluminum is mixed with virgin aluminum ore; the cans on store shelves today are made up of approxomately 40% post-consumer content. Once melted, the molten aluminum pours into ingots, or molds that cast the metal into large sheets (25 feet long and 20 inches thick) that are fed through large rollers, which reduce the thickness of the aluminum sheets all the way down to 1/100th of an inch—the thickness of a human hair! The metal sheets are then coiled and sent to can makers, who fashion the body and lids of the new cans, which then arrive at the bottling plants, ready to be filled and placed back on store shelves.

The entire process—from the moment a can is recycled to the time it arrives back on store shelves—takes only 60 days, which means that a recycled aluminum can could potentially be reused up to six times a year. The Aluminum Association estimates that recycling saves roughly 15 million gallons of crude oil annually, and it is doing its part to reduce the amount of aluminum that is wasted each year. One of the biggest changes made in the past 30 years is the amount of aluminum used to make each can. In 1972, cans weighed about three ounces each, but in 2006 this weight was reduced to a mere half-ounce per can. This means that 200 million fewer pounds of aluminum are used to create the 100 billion cans made each year.

The Aluminum Association has set a goal of a 75% recycling rate for aluminum cans, and strives to make aluminum recycling production a closed-loop process. The closed-loop recycling method all but eliminates the use of virgin materials by recycling and remanufacturing a used product into the same product, and the aluminum can is the perfect candidate for this type of recycling, as it can be recycled indefinitely. This method is already widely used in the iron and steel industries, and with great success. With the current recycling rate of aluminum hovering well below 50%, there is much room for improvement and also money to be made—the industry currently pays out $800 million dollars for recycled aluminum each year.

With so much potential for recycling aluminum, and the significant savings in cost and energy that would result, why isn’t the recycling rate already much higher than it is? Some of the problems can be chalked up to the “human factor”—recycling isn’t as convenient as it could be, selling scrap metal isn’t as profitable as it once was (thanks in part to inflation and to the reduced weight of aluminum cans—one pound of aluminum required more than 34 cans in 2006, up from a mere 22 cans in 1972), and the current curbside recycling programs aren’t capturing a satisfactory percentage of used beverage containers, as most of these drinks are consumed away from the home.

What, you might ask, are the other factors that hinder aluminum recycling in ths country? Stay tuned....

Friday, October 31, 2008

National Bottle Bill

According to studies conducted by the Container Recycling Institute, the recycling rate of beverage containers has fallen nearly 20% since 1990, from 60.9% to a dismal 41.5% in 2006. With industries and municipalities generating ever-increasing amounts of solid waste—and area landfills reaching capacity at alarming rates—the need to improve the reclamation rate of recyclable materials in Chicago (and throughout the nation) has reached critical mass. In fact, the Illinois EPA predicts that all of the landfills in the Chicago Metropolitan Area will be filled (and subsequently closed) within the next five to eight years.

Beverage containers make up nearly 80% of all containers sold in the United States, but traditional curbside recycling methods do not capture a satisfactory percentage of these containers. Perhaps this because more than one-third of these beverages are consumed away from home and emptied within minutes, which makes the containers particularly wasteful. In fact, 45-60% of litter in this country is comprised of used beverage containers.

Although the EPA reports that used soda containers (plastic and aluminum) make up only 2.7% of the Municipal Solid Waste stream, this is largely due to their small size and lightweight composition. More than half of the 200 billion beverage containers sold in the U.S. in 2006 wound up in landfills—58 billion of those containers were aluminum cans, one of the most easily recycled materials known to man.

Experts agree that the reycling industry would benefit from a multi-faceted approach, as no easy answer to this problem currently exists. First, recycling has to be convenient for consumers, which is why the Blue Cart Initiative (introduced in 2007, the program will be citywide by 2011) uses the single-stream recycling method. This means that recyclables are not separated until they arrive at the processing center. This method requires less effort by residents and takes up less space in the home, and it also reduces collection costs because crews are able to work faster when they don’t have to sort the recyclables going into the truck. The thought is that residents will be more willing to participate in a recycling program that requires minimal effort.

The second approach to the recycling dilemma is to provide consumers with an added incentive to recycle. One of the most successful incentive programs in existence is the bottle bill, which charges consumers five cents (ten cents in Michigan) per beverage container sold. The perceived added value of returning cans makes these programs more appealing than traditional buy-back programs, which fetch only one or two cents per can. The deposit is then refunded when containers are returned to the retailer. This program was first established in Oregon in 1971, and to date, eleven states have adopted similar programs (although only ten take back aluminum containers, which are exempted from the bottle bill program in Connecticut). Illinois, however, is noticeably absent from this list.

States with bottle bill programs report sharp increases in the recycling of beverage containers, averaging 75-80%. Michigan, with it’s hefty ten-cent deposit, boasts the greatest return rate of nearly 95%, while California, which offers only a three-to-five-cent refund, still has a 58% recycling rate, much higher than the national average. Litter from beverage containers was reduced by 70-83% in these states, with an overall litter reduction of 30-47%.

The money generated from unclaimed deposits (15-30%, as some of these cans are recycled through the municipal recycling program instead, and some are, sadly, thrown away) generally goes back to the state to fund environmental incentives, although some states give a portion to distributors and retailers to offset the costs of the take-back and pick-up. This translates into millions of dollars in most states—wouldn’t this be more effective than the exorbitant taxes imposed by Cook County and the City of Chicago? The current tax on canned beverages is 13.25%, and a liquor tax is added to alcoholic beverages on top of the initial tax. Many Cook County residents get around this by crossing county lines to purchase these items, (which makes the intended use of the tax as revenue generator less effective), and those who don’t never see a penny of that money back.

Last year, Massachusetts Congressman Edward J. Markey introduced the Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act, a nation-wide bottle bill that would encourage large-scale recycling of glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers. Not only would the bill bring this program—its effectiveness already proven by 22% of the country—to the entire nation, it would also improve existing bottle bills, many of which have not yet been updated to include plastic bottles. As Representative Markey explains, “Congress can send the nation a global warming message in a bottle. We can still quench our thirst while reducing our thirst for energy. And we can have carbon dioxide in our fizzy drinks, while cutting down on heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Some leading environmental and recycling organizations, such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Container Recycling Institute, have already backed the National Bottle Bill, and it seems like the majority of the public would be in favor of the bill as well. According to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide, 70-75% of Americans support a nationwide bill, while 70-85% of residents in states where bottle bills already exist would be in favor of expanding the program to include plastic soda and juice containers. These solutions, combined with the third approach—education and outreach—should help Americans recover many more aluminum cans from the waste stream in years to come.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Alternative Gift Registry

Although I have spent a great deal of money on shower gifts and wedding presents for friends and relatives who have gotten married over the years (and am starting the process all over again now that they're starting to have kids), the coolest gift I ever gave was one that the bride and groom couldn't register for. Instead of fine China, my friend was determined to collect place settings and serving bowls of a pattern her grandma used to have-- one that hasn't been manufactured since the 1950s. So my roommate and I scoured antique malls and thrift stores and managed to put together a tea set, replete with a tea pot, sugar and creamer, and four cups and saucers. She was so excited to receive the set, and we had so much fun finding all the different pieces; best of all, our dollars went much further than they would have in a department store.

I've kept that great idea of hers in the back of my mind-- if and when I ever get married, I would love to find a new use for old products, or at least give my friends and family a choice of where they purchase gifts. I can't imagine that I'll need to ask for nearly as much as a young couple who gets married right out of college would, for I've scraped together enough to fill my kitchen and apartment. I don't have a need for everything to be shiny and new-- some of my most prized posessions and one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture once belonged to someone else. In fact, I might not need to register for much stuff at all-- I'd love to be able to "register" for more abstract things, such as having someone feed my cats while we're on our honeymoon, make a donation to a favorite charity in our name, or offer up their musical talents during the ceremony in lieu of money or gifts.

I learned this spring that, thanks to the (non-profit) Center for the New American Dream, such a registry now exists. Known as the Alternative Gift Registry, engaged couples and expectant parents can now create such a list, free of charge. The sample registries include great ideas such as asking for recipes or volunteer babysitters. For material items, the registry makers may suggest a store or Web site where the item is sold, although gift givers may purchase it anywhere. When an item is purchased, found, or donated, the gift giver enters the information into their computer, and the registry is updated.

The site also includes environmental tips, statistics, and checklists for having a "green" wedding! It's such a neat, yet simple idea-- the bride and groom (or new parents) can customize the registry to include items from several different stores, and to ask for non-material gifts that are more meaningful to them than crystal goblets or toaster ovens, and it gives friends and family the opprotunity to donate their time, knowledge, or services without putting a strain on their wallet. I mean-- for me anyway-- when given a choice between receiving napkin rings and DVDs or having a group of friends spend the weekend helping us renovate our first home, the choice seems clear-- I'd much rather have the help and the memories than the meaningless stuff!

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Good Deed Gone Bad

In a rare moment of financial stability, I made a $20 donation to an environmental non-profit organization last summer. Before I became a contributing member of this group, I distinctly remember reading the fine print on the donation slip about how they would NEVER sell my name to third parties, etc. I even got a free tote bag for my generosity. So I was saving the planet and saving plastic bags from the landfills-- what could be wrong with that?

Plenty, apparently, because the group I joined didn't sell my information-- they gave it away.

Shortly after my free gift arrived, I began receiving unsolicited mail from other environmental organizations. Wouldn't I join their efforts as well, to save the polar bears, to curb deforestation, to keep our wild places wild? I could become a member for just $25, just $16, just $9 a year, and would receive a free ruck sack, plush toy, or umbrella in return for my donation.

Before I know it, this deluge of charitable donation requests has expanded to include animal rights groups, scientific research labs, and even childrens' charities. Then I start receiving duplicate mailings from persistent organizations that had asked for (but did not receive) my help in the past. Next, the group I joined starts reminding me that they've been able to count on me for $20 in the past-- won't I give an additional $30 now to stop drilling in the artic before it's too late?

Some groups are so confident that I will contribute to their worthy cause that they send the free gifts up front-- I am the proud owner of three monogrammed pads of paper, five window decals, a handful of cards, three calendars, and more mailing labels than I can hope to use in a lifetime. I also get pre-printed petitions, addressed to my senators and congressmen, expressing my presumed outrage over some bill that has not been passed, or some policy that has not been enforced. All I have to do is sign at the bottom, print my credit card number on the back, and send it in.

Past presidents, prolific authors, and famous actors are writing to me almost daily about the plight of one underrepresented group or another, each plea more heartbreaking than the last. Wouldn't I like to save the blue-footed booby from extinction, give children with cleft lips a chance at a normal life, or feed and vaccinate scores of homeless animals? Of course I would, but I'm not willing to put myself in the poor house to do so.

Now, instead of feeling good about supporting a worthy cause, I feel like crap, because I can't afford to donate to every organization I feel passionately about. And because of my financial ineptitude, I will not be able to right all the wrongs in this world. One of my favorite sayings is "...to give freely of your time, your effort, and your means." I don't have any means, but I feel that I more than make up for it in the other areas, and c'mon-- two out of three's not bad, right?

Most annoying of all is the amount of paper wasted by these futile mailings. The gut-wrenching letters are sometimes three or four pages long, then there's a postage-paid envelope, a donation slip, glossy pictures of the free gifts I could receive, and more.

Some of the letters proudly state that they were printed on recycled paper using soy-based inks-- but since I never wanted these mailings in the first place, who cares!?! It's still junk mail that clogs up the postal system, that I have to take the time to shred and/or recycle, and it's cluttering up my life. I had signed up for all sorts of opt-out services a few years back, services that I will now have to find and sign up for all over again.

In the meantime, however, my course of action is to NOT renew my membership with this group, thus letting the polar bears drown and the grey wolves be hunted to extinction-- and hope they eventually forget my name and lose my number-- at least until I can afford to make a donation to another group-- one that won't exploit my good intentions.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dryer Balls

I don't intend to post many product reviews on this blog, mainly because I can't afford to test all the new products on the market boasting "green" and "environmental" qualities, but also because writing about such inane things bores me to no end. For the most part, I'll leave the testing and polls and feedback charts to the folks at Consumer Reports, but tonight, I want to tell you why I have decided that the Dryer Balls I purchased last winter were a good buy.

I hate dryer sheets. I hate the way they smell, I hate the way they leave a thin film of chemical residue on my clothes, and I especially hate how quickly I go through a box of those little papers, disposing of multiple sheets each week.
I got my first set of Dryer Balls for Christmas, and gave them a test run for about a month, using them only when I dried linen loads. I noticed a little more static with some fabrics than I did with others, but the overall difference was not that noticeable. What impressed me more was the marked improvement in the fluffiness of my towels-- my linen closet looks much fuller than it did at this time last year. Granted, some of the towels are new, but even the old ones look more inviting than they have in ages.

Satisfied that they worked well enough for my liking, I bought another set a couple months later and made a complete switch. My fingers no longer feel weirdly sticky when I finish folding my laundry, and my clothes smell clean-- not like a "spring rain", a "tropical breeze", or even like "fresh linens"-- just a good, pure clean. Not quite as good as if I had hung them on a clothes line, but pretty close!
While dryer sheets may seem like a relatively insignificant addition to our overall waste output, eliminating even this wisp of a chemically laden solid helps with waste minimization efforts. Good for up to 1,000 uses, these Dryer Balls will last me 10-15 years will keep me from buying 20-30 boxes of disposable dryer sheets. I'll save money in the long run, so I approve!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Abt Electronics-- Pleasing the Planet...Since 2006

Earlier this spring, I spent a blustery Saturday morning searching the Internet for a place to recycle the small pile of broken electronics and appliances that had been accumulating in my dining room all winter. I had a toaster, a cell phone, two cameras, a tuner, and a handful of batteries that didn't qualify for Walgreen's recycling program. Nothing big, but nothing I wanted to trash, either. I found places that recycled computer parts, and others that accepted obsolete (but still functional) electronics, and even a site that charged exorbitant amounts of money for me to pack my e-waste in their special box and ship it to some recycling company in another state.

Frustrated, I was about to give up when I stumbled across this small, inconspicuous link on the Abt Electronics web site. Their flagship store in Glenview has a stand-alone recycling center, located on the southwest side of their lot, slightly behind their main building. Not only would they accept all the odds and ends in my bag of miscellaneous electronics, all but a select few appliances (such as TVs, computers, air conditioners, and refrigerators) are recycled free of charge. They are also one of 75 drop off centers for Sony-- meaning that all Sony products may be dropped off for "e-cycling" at no cost to the consumer.

According to their web site (and some related links), they also accept cell phones, cardboard, and styrofoam-- STYROFOAM!-- and recycle "...five tractor-trailor loads of appliances each day". Much of this volume includes the old appliances they haul away when new ones are delivered, but word is spreading and the public is catching on fast. They also recycle much of the packaging the new appliances arrive in, as well as the wooden pallets on which they are delivered. The company has implemented an impressive number of other green initiatives, but I'll try and limit my focus here, so I don't get all giggly about solar panels and green fleets. You can read a number of articles on their environmental prowess, linked from their site, provided you can find it!

The recycling center opened in 2006, and-- according to the guy who helped me recycle my sad old TV, a styrofoam cooler, and a friend's broken printer last week-- "e-cycling" was made available to the public late last year. From 2:00-7:00, Thursday through Saturday, people can just drive up and drop off whatever they want to recycle. The only complaint I have with this program is that the information isn't posted more prominently on their home page, and that they don't really advertise these services. If it were me, I'd be shouting it from the roof tops!

While I try to avoid a trip to the North Shore as much as the next city dweller, I have yet to find a place in the city that accepts such a wide range of appliances. Some chain retailers of electronics and office supplies do accept a few of these items for recycling, but the fee they charge is pretty steep by comparison. So, in my mind, the remarkable environmental service that Abt Electronics provides to the Chicagoland area at little to no cost to the public makes it well worth the drive.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Old Linens get New Life

I feel like I've been taking a lot of pictures of trash cans lately (which I have), so I want to take things in a different direction today, because recycling glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper is only part of (what can be) a much broader solution. I like to think of the mantra "Reduce, Recycle, and Reuse" as the three R's of the twenty-first century, and any discussion of recycling would be incomplete without addressing this triumverate of waste-reduction techniques in its entirety.

I volunteer at a local animal shelter, and one of the ways I help out is by doing laundry. I wash, dry, and fold blankets, sheets, towels, throw rugs, and even placemats, which are used to line cages and provide soft places throughout the shelter where residents can sleep, hang out, and play. These linens are washed daily, which is a seemingly endless task, and an astounding number of them are needed to replace the soiled linens that are being washed and readied to use again the following day.

At home, I've recently replaced my threadbare towels, and now that I've upgraded to a queen-sized bed, my full-sized sheets are obsolete. Since the towels are no longer fit for human use, and my sister only needs so many sets of sheets for her guest bed, my first thought was to donate them, along with some bathmats and throw rugs given to me by my mother during her "you can never have too many bathmats" phase. This way, I won't feel guilty about giving crappy towels to Goodwill or anything, and I know they'll be put to good use for a bunch of deserving and grateful recipients.

Shelters always have a need for blankets and towels and the like, and they always welcome donations-- not all donations have to be monetary. In fact, many shelters have "wish lists" posted on their Web sites-- they can use more than just pet food, toys, and blankets! A perfect solution to the overstuffed linen closets of America, donors can't help but feel all warm and fuzzy about providing a touch of home for some warm fuzzies, still awaiting a home of their own.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A True Architectural Feat....

You know how, in my last post, I was saying how nice it would be to have compartmentalized trash/recycling receptacles in our parks? Well, it turns out that we do. The city installed eleven of these shiny new receptacles near "The Bean" in Millennium Park earlier this summer. These 40-gallon receptacles are the result of a design competition. Not just any design competition, mind you-- this contest pitted teams of young architects-- ARCHITECTS!-- against each other.

These brilliant structural engineers put their heads together, sketched blueprints, and toiled for more than three years to come up with the object you see here-- an elliptical catch-all with a trash bin on one side and a recycling bin on the other. The magnitude of this competition reminds me of a contest held back in the early 1890s before Chicago's Columbian Exposition. The object of this competition, however, was to design a structure that would rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was unveiled at their World's Fair back in 1889. The winner of that competition was a bridge builder from Pennsylvania, George W. Ferris, who invented-- you guessed it-- the Ferris Wheel.

All sarcasm aside, these receptacles are pretty cool. They look sharp, incorporate some recycled and reclaimed metals in their design, and seem to work pretty well. The winning team of Deborah Kang and Amanda Smith calls their design the EcoTrio "Millennium" model. The original design had three compartments, but was later scaled back to two. I assume this was done to increase capacity and to reduce the risk of confusing the tourists.

The duo has several different models out, including receptacles for home and office use, with more models in the works. I am particularly excited about the "Restaurant" model (I cringe every time I think about the amount of recyclables that enter the waste stream at food joints every day, simply because these restaurants don't have the time/space to source separate). The different-shaped slots on the recycling sections are not new, but as the designers explain:

"The receptacle has a circular opening for containers and a rectangular slot for papers. These openings invite users to recycle. The waste section of the container has a lid that is opened by an attractive elliptical foot pedal. The extra second it takes for users to access the waste section of the container will give them a chance to think if the material they are throwing out could be recycled instead."

The "Pricing available upon request" part leads me to believe that these snazzy bins cost a pretty penny, but I still would like to someday see more of these receptacles (or something similar) throughout our great city. The idea is so deceptively simple, it's brilliant. And c'mon-- if the tourists can figure it out, we all can.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

IKEA that's brilliant!

IKEA, the faux-Swedish furniture chain, is one of many retailers leading the way in large-scale recycling efforts. Not only do they have color-coded, source-separated trash and recycling receptacles prominently placed throughout the store, they also have recycling stations near the entrances that accept plastic bags, household batteries, and CFL (and incandescent!) light bulbs. Store patrons can bring their spent batteries and light bulbs to the nearest location for recycling instead of tossing them in the trash, where they would inevitably leak toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the soil and groundwater.

IKEA also began charging for plastic bags back in 2006, and has since reduced the number of bags handed out each year by 90%. By design, the minimal packaging of the largely unassembled furniture they sell allows for easy stacking and less expensive shipping, which leads to less waste all around. Although the do-it-yourself aspect of assembling their furniture can be frustrating (the instructions are kept to a minimum as well), theirs is a novel concept indeed. The latest catalogs also advertise certain items made from recycled materials, yet another way the retailer is trying to minimize their environmental impact.

According to their Web site, many IKEA stores also have stand-alone recycling centers, and a simple phone call to the "environmental specialist" can arrange educational tours for school children and scout troops. By educating the public in addition to taking back hazardous products and creating a market for recycled materials, IKEA has hit upon the triumverate of actions necessary for a highly effective recycling program. IKEA is a model for other retailers of how to manage their business in the twenty-first century. They are taking greater responsibility of more stages in the life cycles of the products they sell-- from product design to end-of-life management. And like their stores-- those enormous blue and yellow beacons alongside the nation's highways-- the overwhelming benefits of their trailblazing recycling program are hard to miss.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Covered trash, recycling bins now in area parks

Earlier this summer, I noticed that the black wire trash bins in the park near my house had been replaced with large plastic carts, much like the ones that line the alleys in Chicago's residential neighborhoods. The carts are color-coded-- trash carts are green, and the recycling carts are blue. The lids help to prevent trash from blowing out, and the recycling option is a great and much-needed addition to our parks.

Unfortunately, the program doesn't seem to be as successful as one would hope-- there are only a handful of blue carts in the park by my house, and many of them are either empty or filled with regular trash. Another park down the street from me seems to be faring much better-- almost every green trash cart is paired with a recycling cart and people in that neighborhood seem to be making more of an effort to separate what they throw away.

How can we improve participation in the Chicago Park District's recycling efforts? Through awareness, education, and publicity, of course, but I really think that, for public recycling programs to be most effective, we need to make recycling as easy as-- if not easier than-- just dumping everything in the trash.

I think restaurants such as Potbelly's and Schlotzsky's and retailers like Ikea have the right idea. Their trash cans and recycling bins are in one big receptacle. These restaurants make the openings for the recycling bins just large enough to accept bottles and cans and reduce the size of the garbage cans, and Ikea's receptacles are brightly color-coded and even post pictures of the items that go in each compartment (for those who still can't figure it out).

If all trash bins also had recycling compartments, I think it would be hard not to recycle. Maybe someday even the garbage trucks will be compartmentalized-- the recycling company in downstate Springfield, for example, has trucks like this (minus the garbage portion) so I think it could work. That way, the city won't have to continue to try and make us believe that our recyclables get sorted out of the trash once it's been collected and compacted and arrives at the waste management facility (sorry people, I'm still not buying it!) In the meantime, though, compartmentalized receptacles would certainly be a start!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

One Impressive Recycling Event!

This morning, I collected a modest bagful of expired medications and caustic cleaners, hopped in my car and headed to today's Hazardous Materials Recycling event at Northeastern Illinois University, hosted by the City of Chicago. Because of a road closure, I had to detour a bit and approach the University from the west, and was shocked to see that the line for the event was backed up almost all the way to Pulaski!

Fortunately, the event was very well staffed, with workers directing traffic, providing updates, and talking us through every step of the process. By the time I got there (at 10:30 a.m.), the rain barrels were long gone, and the last of the compost bins was claimed while I was waiting in the line, which snaked its way through several parking lots, not unlike the rollercoaster queues at many amusement parks. Many of those who came out solely to get one of these containers were turning away at the entrance-- I just hope they weren't leaving with thier trunks still full of hazardous chemicals!

I was about 10 minutes into the endless procession of conscientious Chicagoans when I realized I left my camera at home-- I tried taking some photos from my car with my camera phone, none of which turned out-- so I'll have to describe what I saw as vividly as I can. On my way to the back of the lot, I passed at least four semis waiting to haul away the massive amounts of chemical and e-waste being collected. As I wound my way through, I gave my zip code to one event staffer (to verify my residency), collected a mini-booklet on other programs and recycling incentives offered by the Department of the Environmnet (complete with Web sites and contact numbers, which I fully intend to look into) and branched off into the paints and chemicals line.

The makeshift tables stretched nearly 40 feet, and were covered with recyclables. Staffers with rolling carts were able to unload trunkfuls of paints, motor oils, caustic chemicals, and cleaning supplies from up to 12 cars at a time-- I found myself wishing I had more to offer!

Behind the sorting tables, dumpsters full of paint cans and the like were filling up fast. Further down the lot, staffers were shrink-wrapping countless computer consoles and monitors into large cubes, which would undoubtedly be forklifted into the waiting semi trailers. Back even further still was a more modest (but still sizable) pile of gas-powered lawn mowers. I even came across an industrial-sized recycling bin and was able to empty my trunk of regular recyclables, which saved me a trip to the Far North side. I don't know whether NEIU is a regular drop-off site, or if the bin was just there for the event, but I'm hoping that it is-- it's much closer than the one I normally go to! And finally, as I was leaving, I got a free CFL bulb for my efforts.

I think residents' overwhelming response is very telling of how badly these services are needed in Chicago, and hopefully this will spur even more events in the future (or at least expand the hours at the permanent hazardous materials recycling center!). Rain barrels are such a hot commodity right now that the city can't quite keep up with the demand. It sounds like, until they manage to keep some in stock, your best bet of getting a rain barrel is to attend a recycling event like this one (just be sure to arrive early!). The next event is on Saturday, September 20, at the City Parking Facility at 900 E. 103rd Street, from 9:00-3:00.

The sheer size of (and participation in) this event was a powerful visual indeed, providing perspective on just how many tons of computer monitors and motor oil containers and such will not be clogging area landfills or leaking toxins into our soil and groundwater for centuries to come. I can't help but feel all warm and fuzzy today, thinking about the number of Chicagoans who suddenly find themselves with more shelf space in their garages and basements, all because they cared enough to load up their household hazards and wait patiently in a long line of like-minded folks to properly and responsibly dispose of these items.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Recycle Hazardous Materials THIS SATURDAY

I got an email from the "City of Chicago Green Team" yesterday, advertising a major recycling event that is being held on the campus of Northeastern Illinois University this Saturday, August 9th, from 9:00 to 3:00.
Residents can bring "household hazards" such as unused medications, household chemicals and paints, computers, cell phones, fax machines, scanners and keyboards, and also old gas cans or gas-powered lawn mowers. In exchange, the City-- along with NEIU and the Illinois EPA-- is offering residents free CFL bulbs and environmentally friendly gas cans (for trade-ins only), and a $100 rebate toward an electric or push mower to those who relinquish their gas-powered mowers. In addition, residents can pick up a compost bin for $30 or a rain barrel for only $40 (payable by check or money order only, and only while supplies last). A similar event will be held on the south side on September 20th, minus the lawn mower turn-in.

These are some really great incentives-- especially for homeowners-- and a great way to get hazardous chemicals, expired medications, and e-waste out of the house. For those who can't make either of the upcoming events, the City does have a permanent recycling facility at 1150 North Branch Street that accepts these same items for recycling, albeit with limited hours (Tuesdays 'til 12:00, Thursdays from 2:00-7:00, and the first Saturday of each month from 8:00-3:00) and presumably minus the incentives.
The only other thing I would like to know is who this "Green Team" is, because I take issue with the way they signed off on the email-- by thanking me for my "continued diligence in making Chicago the Greenest City in America"... While the city does have some great programs in place, until we drastically increase the participation rate in everyday recycling, we are nowhere near that statement being true!

Monday, August 4, 2008

"One man's trash..."

This report, which aired on NBC Nightly News earlier this summer, really caught my eye. It details the robust, booming business at one garbage-collection service turned sorting and shipping center of recyclables, which is based in Chicago Ridge. This company collects recycled plastics, metals, and paper products and ships them-- 700 tons worth each day, in fact-- to Asian markets such as China and India. These countries apparently have an insatiable desire to turn our discarded recyclables into new products and packaging. The on-air reporter went so far as to say that recycled materials are currently our largest export.

The report goes on to describe the pros and cons of exporting recyclables, like how it helps the environment by reducing deforestation, mining, and the processing of raw materials. It also costs less to make new products from existing scraps, and it's currently cheaper to send these scraps overseas (in the same ships that brought us craploads of imports) than it is to process them here. In an age where we're not making many products that other countries want to buy, it's nice to know that at least we have something on the trading table.

Among the downfalls are the fact that we don't yet have the ability to recycle all these products ourselves, which would create new jobs here at home in a growing and necessary industry. Some who commented on the story speculate that the recent increase in recalls of imported products are because of lax recycling standards overseas. Ergo, by sending them products to recycle, we're bringing this problem upon ourselves. I don't know what those standards are, and personally, I don't see the connection-- I thought most of the recalls were due to lead-based paint, not recycled plastics-- but I'm no expert, and anyways, that's not my focus here.

Whatever the glitches in this current system are, I am confident that they can and will be resolved, or at least improved upon, in the future. In the meantime, the main points that jumped out at me (and embedded themselves in my brain) are these:

  • The economy sucks and we don't export many products anymore
  • Somebody has found an export that is in very high demand
  • The country's largest export facility of its kind is in our own backyard
  • Developing countries are paying top dollar for this export and they can't seem to get enough of it
  • While the export isn't appealing or glamorous, it is keeping tons upon tons of garbage out of area landfills

Chicagoans could very easily help to bring more-- a LOT more-- money into the local economy simply by recycling, which would help to supply the continual and overwhelming demand from overseas. I've seen studies that report a dismal 8% to 15% participation rate in Chicago's recycling programs. Even a modest doubling or tripling of that number would significantly increase the number of products available for export. So, Chicago... Save the economy! Save the planet!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Turkey vs Chicago

On a recent trip to Turkey, I saw many incredible and astounding sights, but their remarkably high level of energy conservation impressed me most. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Izmir, I noticed that the escalators in the airport and subway had motion sensors that would kick on only when someone approached-- the hallway lights in our hotels had sensors as well. Once in the rooms, we had to insert our key card into a slot in the wall to turn on the lights and A/C, which powered off the second the key card was removed to ensure that the hotel wouldn't be paying to light or cool an empty room.

The dolmuş, or shuttle bus, was all the rage in Selçuk and Şirinçe, and the overnight buses were packed-- not with tourists, but with local residents. In Cappadocia, shop owners throughout the region operated their businesses with the lights off when the natural lighting was sufficient, and many sat outside in the fresh mountain air to avoid running fans when no customers were present. Even the cave hotel we stayed in was lit with CFL bulbs!

In Istanbul, the efficiency of their waste management system was truly a sight to behold. The city is roughly four times the size of Chicago, and trash is collected several times a week. I asked a waiter about some guys I saw methodically going through trash bags on the curb one night, thinking they were like our bag ladies or scrap metal guys, and was told that they were in fact employed by the city to separate out any recyclables before the trash was picked up. The ones I saw were even pulling out scraps of food to feed the overwhelming stray population! Apparently theirs is a respected profession; "yes please, my friends" the waiter told me, nodding at the men.

So how is it that Turkey-- a country whose people still conduct business over a water pipe and cup of tea-- is light years (light years!) ahead of us when it comes to recycling and conservation? Perhaps it is their location-- Turkey is bordered by (and a fraction of it is even in) Europe on the west, and most countries in the EU have been battling outrageous gasoline prices for years now. Maybe the Turks have adopted (among other things) a conservationist mentality from their European neighbors. However, Turkey is bordered by the "axis of evil" on the east, and its proximity to these oil-rich countries keeps gasoline prices relatively low (compared to Europe anyway!)-- roughly $2.00/liter where I was. It seems to me that they could easily afford to use much more energy than they do, but they choose not to.

While not all of these strategies would work in Chicago, many of them could! It's not hard to imagine our city with smart escalators in department stores and el stations, or motion-sensor lights in public restrooms. I'm sure we can (and will) come up with ideas like these (and many others), but although we've made great strides in greening our city, we still have a long way to go.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

An Assault on Batteries

You know that episode of Sex and the City-- I think it was in Season Six-- when Berger, Carrie's boy du jour, admits that he picks up playing cards he finds on the streets of New York in hopes of collecting an entire deck, then suddenly Carrie starts seeing these cards everywhere? I have an admission of my own, in that I do the same thing with discarded batteries.

While I am not looking to start a used battery collection, I am compelled to pick them up because of what will happen if they are left to the elements. Batteries contain hard metals and chemicals such as nickel, mercury, acid, alkaline, and cadmium and have no business in our landfills OR on the side of the road, as exposure to extreme temperatures and moisture causes the casings to crack and allows the chemicals to seep into the soil and groundwater.

I'd like to think that I look slightly less crazy than I would if I went around picking up, say, empty cans, nor am I infringing on those who try to profit from collecting and recycling other people's trash. Not only are batteries easier to pick up and carry than aluminum cans, they are also (at the time of this posting) easier for me to recycle. Household batteries can be recycled at any area Walgreens or Chicago Public Library for free, and considering that there's now a Walgreens on almost every corner, it couldn't be easier!

So if, after reading this, you start seeing discarded batteries everywhere, instead of cursing my screen name, at least consider picking up those little nuggets of encased toxins and recycling them. And when it comes time to replace some spent batteries, know that tossing them is the equivalent of replacing the ice cubes in your next glass of water with some frozen AAs-- gross! From what I can tell, household battery recycling is not yet available nationwide, but if our local program is an overwhelming success, maybe it will be.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More on the bag debate...

I saw on the news this morning that Los Angeles, much like San Francisco did last year, will fully ban plastic bags by 2010. When I looked a little further, I found this artice from NPR dated March of this year, with plenty of examples from around the world that this trend of charging for-- or entirely banning-- the flimsy, disposable plastic bag is not new, nor is it unique. Ireland has apparently been charging customers upwards of twenty cents per bag since 2003, and some African countries have imposed "minimum thickness requirements" on the bags they distribute. Germany charges a recycling fee to retailers who offer plastic bags, and China's free plastic bag ban went into effect last month.

In this country, several smaller cities in California and Alaska have adopted similar bans, and a number of large cities have plastic-bag policies in the works. Chicago, however-- despite the city's claims that it is one of the greenest in the country-- is notably absent from this list.

I have a number of canvas totes that are in near-constant use, and all of them have plastic produce bags inside that I reuse until they fall apart. I also have a handy nylon bag that folds down smaller than a cell phone that I carry in my purse in the event of a spontaneous purchase. Despite my best efforts, I am not able to avoid the plastic bag entirely, and little irks me more than the double (or triple!) bagging required in stores that use the flimsiest of bags-- why should I need six bags to carry four items!? Even though I try (like many people) to reuse them-- usually as garbage bags-- not all of them are sturdy enough, and the city doesn't accept these bags for recycling, so I am left with no choice but to throw them away.

Whether you're for or against the plastic bag ban, I don't see this trend going away any time soon-- in fact, I think the movement is just beginning to pick up steam. And isn't it better to make the switch now while it's still a matter of choice, than to be forced to switch later as a result of a (what I think will be an inevitable) city ordinance? I'd like to think that it is.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bugged about bags?

A front-page article in this morning's Tribune portrayed a visionary, yet unwittingly controversial vendor at the Evanston Farmer's Market. It described how the farmer's un-earth friendly act of putting his organic, locally grown produce into more than 30,000 plastic bags a year was weighing heavily on his eco-conscience. So this year, when he decided to start charging people a quarter for up to four of these plastic bags, his noble attempt to reduce his impact on the environment was met with grumbles, complaints, and even outrage!
I have long seen the irony in doling out market-fresh fruits and veggies in scores of plastic bags, and personally, I applaud his efforts. I was just stunned to hear that the Farmer's Market patrons (who, by definition, are usually greener than the average citizen) would meet this action with so much resistance. Indeed, the online poll (at the time of this posting) revealed that 54% of respondents would refuse to pay extra for a plastic bag.
While I realize that the initial gut reaction most people have to new and unexpected charges is one of moral outrage, I see this as less of an attempt to nickel-and-dime struggling consumers and as more of an incentive to change the way we shop. Think about it-- these petroleum-based bags have littered roadsides, vacant lots, and dormant tree branches for years-- few people can argue that finding a way to produce (and discard) fewer of these bags is a bad thing. And stores like Aldi, and (more recently) Ikea and Whole Foods have proven that charging even a nominal five- to ten-cent fee per bag drastically reduces the number of bags their customers use. These bags are still available to consumers, but their convenience is no longer complimentary.
Another thought came to me tonight as well... Even though we can't control the price of a gallon of gas or a barrel of oil, and few of us can get by without using either at this point in time, we can control, reduce, and nearly eliminate our use of a product created from this exorbitantly priced resource-- the plastic bag. While the initial impact may be small, I believe the implications will be far-reaching.
The farmer in question estimates that he has reduced plastic bag use by 90%-- if he stays on track, he will have managed to keep roughly 27,000 bags from being wasted by the end of the season. That's pretty impressive! So to the market-goers of the North Shore (and everywhere!), please continue to support local farmers if you can, just bring a bag if you're able.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Blue Bag Blues

So I was all set to write to my alderman this afternoon, requesting that we get the blue cart program in our ward sooner rather than later, when I came upon this information, saying that multi-unit residences had private trash pickup, and landlords were required to have a recycling program in place for their residents. In addition, residents are to be educated on what items are eligible for recycling in their building, and encouraged to participate in the program.

I wasn't aware of any program in my building, so I called my landlords-- what good are all these ordinances if they're not followed? To my surprise, I was told that we do in fact take part in the blue bag program with our waste management company, and that they just paid the extra "blue bag" charge a few days ago. While I'm glad to know that all those blue bags I've used in the past were potentially separated from the trash flow, I haven't been able to purchase any blue bags since last summer. I even tried to snag myself a free set in January by recycling a Christmas Tree, but they didn't have any to give away, only CFL bulbs and metal water bottles. I tried again this spring-- went to three Home Depots, a Menards and two Jewels before one helpful employee told me that the program had officially ended.

So instead I've spent my afternoon trying to find out if the blue bag program is really dead-- the City's Web site refers to the program in the past tense, with the exception of the following paragraph:

"And whether it comes to yard waste or general recyclables, residents of areas that have yet to make the transition to the Blue Cart can still employ a "last resort" method of recycling by continuing to use the Blue Bag. Since many private haulers have high rise residents that use the Blue Bag, operators of sorting centers or transfer stations where all waste is taken are required by permit to pull these bags and recycle them."

Finally, I found this press release on the Chicago Recycling Coalition's Web site (it's a cool site-- definitely worth checking out-- I'll try to have more on the organization soon) dated May 2, 2008, definitively saying that the program was ending this summer.

Does your apartment building have a recycling program in place? Check with your landlords-- if they're still paying for the blue bag program like mine are, they're wasting their money-- you can't even buy blue bags anymore! If apartment and high-rise dwellers can all get effective recycling programs in place in their buildings, we can turn around the city's dismal recycling efforts way before 2011--even faster than the city itself.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Recycling is hard!

For a city that proclaims to be one of the greenest in the nation, recycling in Chicago is not easy. Since the blue bag program was phased out (as it should have been! Despite the ads on the el depicting Streets and San guys in HazMat-type suits plucking blue bags from mounds of garbage, I seriously doubt that the program was very [if at all] effective), and the blue cart program (a much better idea!) won't be completely in place for another three years, keeping my recyclables out of the landfills requires a lot of effort on my part.

I currently collect recyclables in bins in my dining room. When the bins are full, I bag the contents and transfer them to the trunk of my car. When my trunk is full, I drive WAAAAAAY up north to the nearest of the city's 16 drop-off centers, park my car, stand on my tippy toes to open one of the lids on the dumpster-sized blue bins in the parking lot, heave heavy bags of old newspapers, plastic containers, glass bottles, and the like over my head and into said bins, reach up again to close the lid, then get back in my car and make the 15-minute drive back to my neighborhood.

I know of a couple other friends who have adopted similar routines... One drives carfuls of recyclables to her parents' house in the North suburbs, and another sneaks through the alleys in the ward to the north in the dead of night, trying to find a coveted blue cart with enough space left in it to hold the bags that she's carrying.

If this seems a little extreme, that's because it is. I know my friends and I may be a little crazy, but I also know that we're not like most people. Sadly, most people currently don't have the time or the means to recycle in this city--although many have the desire--and either opt for (or resort to) the convenience of the trash instead, because everybody has that.

I hope to chronicle my recycling adventures in future posts and share my experiences with others. I also want to offer (and receive!) suggestions and ideas on improving the recycling efforts in Chicago. I know that bringing about change in this city won't be easy, but I'm hoping for the best.