Recycling - A Changing, Continuing Challenge

      When he was hired more than 20 years ago, the notion of diverting aluminum cans, glass bottles, newsprint and yard waste from the county landfill was just taking hold. Mounting opposition in the 1980's to new landfills, in general, had begun to "really galvanize public interest," according to Gary Mielke, Kane County's first-ever recycling coordinator. Curbside pickup was being tried in just a few Kane communities and only about 9 percent of the solid waste being generated in the county was being recycled, he said. By 1993 the figure had jumped to 26 percent. Kane County currently recycles roughly 40 percent of its solid waste, or about 600 pounds per person each year.

     Mielke is scheduled to retire in July. When he does, responsibility for, among other things, the development, coordination and implementation of recycling and conservation programs in Kane County will be vested in a part-time recycling and resource conservation program coordinator. A second, part-time position of resource conservation program educator is expected to be filled later in the year.

     Recycling has been and will continue to be an evolutionary process, he said.
     "When I came to the county in 1990, curbside recycling was just starting. St. Charles, East Dundee and Sleepy Hollow were the first to start pick-up programs in 1989. Before that, the only option for people to recycle was drop-off centers," said Mielke, who, as a state employee in the 1980's, had been promoting conservation and recycling.

    "With that (drop-off) model and with a well-established program that was well-publicized you would get 20 percent participation. With curbside, if you make it convenient, simple and well-designed, we now get participation rates in Kane County anywhere from 75 percent to 95 percent, and have consistently," he said. "More people recycle than vote."

        It took a series of events and incremental adjustments by policymakers, industry leaders, businesses and what he called "a critical mass" of engaged citizens and non-profit organizations to drive recycling to its current levels, according to Mielke. "We made more progress than anybody thought. We had no idea if curbside (pickup) was going to work. It really took everybody to make that happen," he said. An underlying factor that Mielke said he believes has caused recycling to snowball is "people's inherent belief that wasting things is bad. And that's ingrained in us, that we shouldn't waste things."

   Looking ahead

       Rapid changes in disposable technology and materials over the next 20 years will continue to pose recycling challenges, not unlike those of the last 20, according to Mielke.

       Despite having had a generation of children now that has grown up never having known a day in their lives without recycling, education will continue to be paramount for recycling to reach even high levels, he said. "As a generation has passed here, we've really made (recycling) a part of daily life."

     "The best way to change adult behavior is to educate their children," said Mielke. "Getting into the schools is real important. That hasn't change."

      "What's in the waste has changed - plastics being a great example - and a lot more waste," said Mielke.

      A new state law set to go into effect in January, 2012 will ban computers and televisions from disposal in Illinois landfills. "Although electronics represents a small percentage of the waste stream, with the new state law, our existing electronics recycling program, which has been at that old 20 percent participation, will kick it up to 100 percent."

      Exactly how and whether electronics collection and recycling can evolve as it has for other household items is yet to be determined.

      "Regular recycling works because of route efficiency and frequency of generation. We have cans and bottles and jars to recycle every week. The economics work. But you don't have electronics every week. You may not have a piece of electronics every year," said Mielke.

      "The county's stated goal is recycle as much as possible," he said. "There's no ceiling on that goal. Areas where we need to do better is plastics and household hazardous wastes."

    "The next big trend that could come, and the next biggest component that isn't being recycled, is food waste," said Mielke. "That's something that is on the horizon but it is starting to attract some interest in Illinois," he said.