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McLean County recycling rates at risk after hauler chooses not to renew city contract

a couch sits on a curb in a residential neighborhood
Ralph Weisheit
WGLT file
In Bloomington, spring and fall free bulk pickups typically take place during the first two weeks of May and October. Furniture, waste generated from cleaning out a house, and remodeling debris are accepted.

McLean County's recycling rate could take a hit after LRS Henson Disposal, Bloomington's bulk waste hauler, chose not to renew its contract with the city.

“They have some concern about the permit and what they could take, and they felt they can no longer accept bulk pickup from the city. Under the past proprietorship, they had a different interpretation,” said Mose Rickey, Bloomington's public works director.

Henson has taken part of the bulk waste collected in twice-yearly curbside collections to its Construction and Demolition Waste Recycling Center on South Bunn Street. Rickey said he did not foresee any interruption of service for homeowners.

“It was something that was unexpected on our end. However, that’s life and sometimes these things you have to deal with. I don’t foresee it being an issue for the general public at all. For us, it will require a little more legwork," said Rickey, adding he expects recycled amounts by any new hauler to be "comparable."

That’s not how the head of the Ecology Action Center [EAC] in Normal views it. The center manages the solid waste disposal plan for McLean County.

"If this recycling of those materials is going away, that's going to have a dramatic impact, a long-term impact on our countywide recycling rate," said EAC director Michael Brown.

No other hauler in this part of the state has a construction and demolition [C and D] waste recycling facility. Transfer stations typically take materials straight to a landfill.

Brown said if all bulk waste goes to a landfill in the future, it could drop the recycling rate from a five-year average of 45.7% of all waste generated down to a percentage in the high 30s.

“We're looking at 16% or so of our total materials recycled is C and D. If we just look at the bulk waste materials, over the past five years, that’s about 6.2% of our total recycling rate," he said.

LRS Henson hasn't said why it did not renew its contract with Bloomington.

"We remain committed to servicing the City of Bloomington with the best possible environmental practices in mind and are evaluating the best course of action to find a potential resolution," said LRS Area Vice President John Sliwicki.

In Bloomington, spring and fall free bulk pickups typically take place during the first two weeks of May and October. Furniture, waste generated from cleaning out a house, and remodeling debris are accepted. Not allowed are extreme demolitions [an entire garage or floor, for example], household garbage, leaves, brush, garden waste, household hazardous waste, concrete, rocks, shingles, and appliances.

In Normal, bulky waste collection is weekly on the same day as regular municipal waste collection. Normal does take appliances. [The town calls the program "bulky waste;" the city calls it "bulk waste"]. Also accepted are carpet and carpet pads [which can be recyclable], furniture, mattresses, some remodeling debris, and boards with nails removed.

Normal’s bulky waste pickup will not take garbage, waste totaling more than 500 pounds or electronics. There’s a separate dropoff site for e-waste in Normal, while landscape waste in the town is handled through a different collection effort.

The town hauls its bulky waste to the Henson recycling center as well. For now, that continues.

“We have been in touch with LRS regarding town bulky waste processing at their facility. As of now, the town continues to take bulky waste to LRS for processing and recycling,” said public works director Ryan Otto. “The town’s contract with LRS/Henson is now expired, so conversations moving forward will need to resolve the question of renewal.”

The City of Bloomington has another contractor lined up for bulk waste collection: Republic Services. That hauler puts material in a landfill after collecting it at its Bloomington transfer center.

“Republic Services is proud to serve the City of Bloomington by managing its bulk waste in a safe, environmentally responsible way and in compliance with all regulations. Our Bloomington Transfer Station manages Municipal Solid Waste [MSW]. As a sustainability company that prioritizes diversion and a circular economy, we encourage residents to seek reuse or recycling options for bulk waste items that are recyclable,” said a statement from Republic's media relations division.

LRS also has picked up recyclables and construction debris from Rivian. A company spokesperson said they did not immediately know the quantity or a potential impact if that changes.

Even though LRS is not saying precisely why it’s changing procedures, a well-regarded expert in waste management said it is likely not a capricious move. Garbage transfer stations take a wider variety of waste than a C and D does, typically rolloff materials for road and building projects. Historically, bulky items from curbside do not go to a C and D facility, said Walter Willis, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of Lake County (SWALCO).

“What LRS Henson had been doing with the Twin Cities down there was probably in a real gray area,” said Willis. “I think there is a regulatory basis for what LRS is doing there, not just changing their mind willy nilly.”

Cardboard, for instance, is recyclable, but is not supposed to go to a C and D facility.

Brown of the EAC acknowledged Bloomington-Normal was something of a unicorn in the way it handles bulk waste.

"Most other communities don't have a C and D recycling facility, and none that I know of are sending their bulk waste to a C and D recycling facility to get recycled," said Brown.

But one of the strategies in the county's integrated solid waste management plan has been to increase recycling of construction and demolition waste.

“This is unfortunately, to my understanding, gonna take us the opposite direction," said Brown.

LRS is seeking a permit for its own transfer station to adjoin its C and D facility on South Bunn Street. If that permit is approved, it's conceivable some on-site sorting of materials could be done to divert a portion of qualifying bulk waste to the C and D stream. Less feasible, Brown said, would be for Bloomington and Normal to create its own recycling center for such materials.

“That would be some sort of new materials recovery facility, or ‘Murf,’ as it's called in the industry. To get something like that up and running, permitted, is a significant investment,” said Brown.

C and D facilities fall under the Land Bureau of the IEPA, which deals with so-called "section 22.38" issues involving construction and demolition recycling facilities.

“If I were the Twin Cities I would be saying let’s at least pose this question to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and see if it’s OK. Likely they won’t but…,” said Willis of SWALCO.

The IEPA said it is working on a response to a WGLT query.

Democratic state Sen. Dave Koehler of Peoria said if there is a gray area of the law, it needs to be clarified.

“We should be recycling everything except garbage. Everything that has value should be kept out of landfills,” said Koehler, noting there is a statewide task force looking at a variety of solid waste issues and this would certainly qualify. Such issues are complex, and Koehler said many interests need to be at the table. He cited a fight over recycling of carpet some years ago as a particularly tangled example.

Meanwhile, McLean County is in the middle of refreshing its integrated solid waste management plan. Even the old one had aggressive step-up targets for recycling.

“It's going to set us back,” said Brown.

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