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Another COVID consequence: McLean County recycling dropped 22% in 2020

Trash at curb
Eric Stock
/
WGLT
A release from the Normal-based Ecology Action Center said that while recycling rates decreased by 22% from 2019 to 2020, that percentage is "consistent with national and global deviations that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic."

When the Ecology Action Center drafted an update to McLean County's long-term waste management program in 2017, a pandemic wasn't one of the barriers planners identified.

Still, recycling efforts in the county didn't fare as badly as they did elsewhere during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, according to new data from EAC.

Education Coordinator Jen Gravley said that's due, in part, to how the county continued pre-existing practices during the pandemic.

"Many cities globally just plain halted curbside recycling — some of them could barely keep up with residential trash collections," she said. "During the pandemic, across this county, not only trash but recycling continued to be picked up, routed, sorted and processed as usual."

A release from the Normal-based nonprofit said that while recycling rates decreased by 22% from 2019 to 2020, that percentage is "consistent with national and global deviations that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic."

By EAC's count, about 163,000 tons of solid waste were generated in McLean County during 2020 — a drop from 193,000 tons in 2019.

"As businesses shut down or reduced services, business waste generation really went down," Gravley said. "But as people stayed home, residential waste just really exploded. It skyrocketed. So there was this major shift in waste generation from business places to residences."

That shift "likely increased" the amount of single-use items sent to a landfill, EAC noted in its release, but the amount of waste the county created in 2020 dropped 16% from the past year.

The sending of cardboard, plastic and other recyclables related to convenience to the trash also "skyrocketed" during COVID, Gravley added, but a drop in recycling events also contributed to the decline of recycling.

"The special drop-off programs for things like lightbulbs, batteries and many items that have to be taken to somewhere else — those programs closed those services, at least temporarily, so people hung onto those things and we saw a decrease in recycling there," she said.

EAC has been studying where solid waste goes in McLean County since the 1970s.

The nonprofit coordinated with county and other municipal groups in the 1990s and late 2010s to develop decades-long plans to increase recycling rates in McLean County.

The latest plan, drafted in 2017, sets a goal of reaching a countywide recycling rate of 80% by 2037.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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