Recycling, the last of the three Rs after “reduce” and “reuse,” is not as simple as it might seem. It’s not just about tossing plastics, glass and takeout containers into the appropriate bin in the belief that it will be sorted and magically turned into a purse or a pair of flipflops, thus saving the planet, one easily recycled product at a time.

Rather, recycling is a global industry fraught with economic and legal problems over the past few years. It has become less and less cost effective for waste management companies to continue their recycling programs, and municipalities across the United States have abandoned recycling programs completely, citing difficulty and expense.

Forest Park reports rising costs for recycling year after year, but town administrators and commissioners are committed to keeping recycling a viable solution to waste in town. 

John Clifford, representative from Republic Services, Forest Park’s recycling service, attended a Village of Forest Park recycling forum on Nov. 17 to talk about the state of recycling, how and what to recycle, and what should stay out of recycling bins. He stressed how important it is to get it right when it comes to recycling, because mistakes can lead to contamination, which in turn can lead to higher costs in an industry that is already economically unstable.

Dozens of Forest Park residents attended the forum. Spearheaded by Commissioner of Public Property Jessica Voogd and Commissioner of Streets and Public Improvements Ryan Nero, it was attended by Village Administrator Tim Gillian, Commissioner Joe Byrnes, Director of Public Works John Doss and Community Center Director Karen Dylewski. Representatives from the Forest Park Community Garden, the Environmental Committee of the League of Women Voters of Oak Park and River Forest, and the Forest Park Sustainability Commission had information booths and were available for questions before and after the meeting.

“Recycling has changed dramatically over the past few years,” said Clifford, who talked about the recent history of the industry. Until January 2018 and China’s “National Sword” policy, China was the world’s biggest buyer of recyclable materials from the United States. Frustrated with the condition of the recyclable materials they were receiving, which they claimed contained too much trash mixed in with the desirable cardboard and plastics, China drastically reduced what they would purchase.

At first, according to Clifford, China wanted recyclables they purchased to have less than a 5% contamination level. They reduced that to 3% and eventually would accept almost nothing. Because China had previously handled a huge percentage of the world’s recyclables – as much as half, according to some estimates – the industry was thrown into a state of flummox.

India and Malaysia began purchasing recyclable materials from the United States, but their infrastructures couldn’t handle it, said Clifford. Domestically, companies are increasing recycling capabilities, but it could take years for the industry to catch up.

“There is less value to recycling economically,” Clifford said. “It’s become a tough business model.” As a result, spending money and time on educating the public and making the process of recycling as simple as possible can help keep the costs down.

“We need to be more conscious now,” said Clifford. “We need to reduce contamination levels.”

Contamination levels affect whether or not a bin of recyclables can actually be recycled or needs to be thrown away like regular trash. According to Clifford, only about 70% of what goes into recycle bins actually gets recycled, and this is because of contamination.

If a plastic ketchup container made of recyclable plastic is thrown into a recycling bin, it can cause the entire load to be considered “contaminated.” Regular trash, such as kitchen waste or soiled paper, that ends up in a recycling bin can do the same.

Republic Services uses the following trademarked phrase to help consumers remember the basics of how to prepare recyclables: “Empty. Clean. Dry.”

Clifford explained that “residual” waste inside a container is okay. A little grease on the sides won’t eliminate a plastic item from being recycled. But it should be rinsed out as well as possible and dried. Tops can be left on or off.

Karen Rozmus, from Forest Park’s Sustainability Commission, stressed the fact that recycling, while vitally important to the environment, is still the third option after reducing waste and reusing containers and products as much as possible.

“We need to think every day about what goes through our hands,” said Rozmus, who identified three key ways residents can be environmentally conscious on a daily basis. First, she reminded people to bring cloth grocery bags to the store. Second, she said Keurig cups are a huge source of unrecyclable garbage. And third, she encouraged people not to buy disposable water bottles but to refill reusable ones.

Nero said the best way to influence change is to talk about it. “We need to rely on each other to get out and talk to our neighbors about what you learned,” said Nero. 

Gillian said that Clifford will be presenting to the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce soon to teach local businesses about the benefits of and pitfalls often found in recycling.

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