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.