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Recycling rate rises in McLean County, but misses target

Recycling bins
WGLT file
The Ecology Action Center in Normal reports the county recycling rate rose to nearly 47% of all solid waste produced last year. McLean County is ahead of the 32.1% national recycling average.

McLean County improved its recycling rate significantly last year, but lost ground on its goals. The Ecology Action Center in Normal reports the county recycling rate rose to nearly 47% of all solid waste produced last year, up from about 44% in 2021.

McLean County is ahead of the 32.1% national recycling average.

The center is the solid waste agency for Bloomington, Normal, and McLean County and provides technical assistance, recycling promotion, household hazardous waste coordination, education and outreach.

Center director Michael Brown said the gains have come from Rivian and other large businesses upping their game.

 Five-year figures of solid waste diversion in McLean County
Ecology Action Center
Five-year figures of solid waste diversion in McLean County

"Bridgestone in particular is seeking to divert 90% of their waste from the landfill by the end of 2023," said Brown.

He declined to detail how Rivian and Bridgestone are increasing recycling rates because the companies give data to the center on a confidential basis out of concern for proprietary processes.

“The Ecology Action Center annually collects waste and recycling data to calculate the amount of municipal solid waste generated and recycled for all of McLean County as a lagging indicator of the impact of local recycling and outreach programs,” according to the center.

Recycling challenges

Even though the recycling rate rose, it did not meet the 50% goal for the year in the McLean County Solid Waste Management Plan.

“The goal actually automatically goes up to a 60% diversion of solid waste from landfills for the next quarter of the 20-year solid waste management plan, which ends in 2027,” said Brown.

The area lost ground during the pandemic, he said, when people ordered a lot of delivery and takeout meals in non-recyclable containers and shopped more at Amazon and other Internet retailers. Another big drag on recycling progress was the so-called Green Fence China policy enacted in 2018.

"They put a limit of 0.5% contamination rates for any imports of recycled materials. That effectively shut down Chinese recycling markets for recycled commodities. Other Asian countries followed suit shortly thereafter," said Brown, adding that forced a long rebuilding phase in markets for U.S. recyclables.

Even some good environmental moves like the growth of paperless offices can hurt the recycling rate because the paper is taken out of the waste stream altogether. Recycling of fluorescent light bulbs also is down 34% because people are switching to energy efficient LEDs, according to the action center.

The amount of brush collected by the town and city declined last year, too, because a large ice storm in 2021 caused a one-year bump in the amount of brush recycled due to downed trees and limbs.

Brown said further recycling gains might depend on individual behavior.

"We've been very focused on growing smarter recyclers and teaching people how to recycle better — not recycle more because contamination has really been hurting recycling and increased the cost of processing recyclables," said Brown.

There are other signs of progress. Brown said a lot of retailers have begun to use easily recyclable molded paper board for shipping fragile items instead of Styrofoam, which is hard to recycle.

He said the county also will try to increase food waste processing.

“We have successfully implemented a small-scale residential food composting service, kiosk based, it is fee based. But it has proven to be very popular. We're very excited about that. And to even implement that puts us ahead of schedule, as it was in the plan for another quarter,” said Brown.

The center also is conducting a feasibility study on the potential for a permanent household hazardous waste facility.

“To look into the costs of operating a permanent household hazardous waste facility. What would be the draw, how much materials? How do we pay for this? How do we make this work? And we are hopeful that the results of that study are positive. And that's something that we might be able to pursue in the next couple of years,” said Brown.

One goal set aside following the Green Fence move by China was to implement a construction demolition recycling ordinance.

“That is something that we looked into very closely with the municipalities, with the county, given that we do have a construction recycling operation here in McLean County, which is actually one of the only such facilities downstate,” said Brown.

He said that goal could return as part of the upcoming five-year update of the solid waste management plan.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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