After years of lobbying and waiting, Illinois State University students will finally have access to recycling at their off-campus apartments starting next month.
Turns out, the timing is still not great.
The Town of Normal’s multifamily recycling ordinance goes into effect Aug. 1, requiring landlords to offer recycling or face $100 per day penalties. But this is happening amid major fluctuations in the global recycling commodity business, which are compressing domestic markets and making it more expensive to recycle.
Those fluctuations—including China not accepting U.S. recyclables—are indirectly making implementation of Normal’s new recycling ordinance more challenging, said Michael Brown, executive director of the Normal-based Ecology Action Center.
“It is unfortunately bad timing,” Brown said. “But I do think the system will recover. Recycling will recover. It’s gone through more difficult times than this, with more difficult prices. So this will balance out in the end.”
Those global pressures on the recycling market trickle down to Normal.
Using make-believe numbers, let’s say it costs a hauler $10 in equipment and labor to pick up and transport your apartment building’s recycling. Before, the hauler could charge you $5 and make up the other $5 – plus a little profit – by selling the recyclable commodities. But if no one wants to buy the recyclables, the value of the recyclables is less than $5, or even $0, and your cost as a landlord goes up. And if that hauler has to take some of your stuff to a landfill instead, that costs extra too.
Young America, the largest apartment management company in Normal, looked at several options before deciding to hire its existing garbage hauler to handle its recycling too, said general manager Andy Netzer. They’re ready for Aug. 1, he said.
“The swing (in pricing) is huge,” said Netzer. “(Our hauler) is uncomfortable hard-bidding it, so we have some trigger events in our contract to adjust for those market conditions. So we’re unclear and uncertain about what the future holds for pricing.”
While not yet happening in McLean County, the Peoria-based hauler PDC/Area Disposal has imposed an additional fee on a sliding scale in other markets to protect itself against “all-time lows” in the recycling business, said Vice President Matt Coulter.
“It’s a very volatile commodity right now, unfortunately,” Coulter said.
That makes it hard to project whether the recycling program will lead to higher rents.
“It shouldn’t be that much,” Normal Mayor Chris Koos said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “The cost of recycling per tenant is gonna be pretty low. I can’t imagine that the rents will go up.”
The ordinance impacts all multifamily housing in Normal, not just student apartments.
“There are still some concerns about the cost of doing this. There was one rental company I talked to the other day that is very much on a fixed budget. It’s essentially public housing. So they’re concerned about how they’ll fit this into their budget,” Brown said.
Young America is trying to pass-through the cost to tenants in some cases, Netzer said. On a few properties, the cost is being included in a tenant’s utility allowance, helping property owners recover some of the cost, he said.
“We’re doing what we can. The market will bear out the rents,” Netzer said.
Yes, it’s an added service, but Netzer said it’s still unclear how much student tenants will value the recycling option.
Elisabeth Reed says that value is high. She’s the new program director at ISU’s Office of Sustainability.
Most ISU students grew up in communities where recycling was ubiquitous, she said.
“This is definitely something that they want. It’s antiquated that we didn’t have it before. It’s time that we have it,” Reed said.
When In Doubt, Throw It Out
Other than price volatility, the biggest challenge as Aug. 1 nears will be education: How do you tell 14,000 off-campus ISU students what they can and can’t recycle?
One in four items that get thrown into a recycling bin is contaminated—and can’t be recycled—and will be taken to a landfill regardless, Coulter said.
“They’re putting Styrofoam into a (recycling) container that says no Styrofoam, because they don’t want to take the time to get the Styrofoam out of the box. So that is an example of the dilemma our whole industry is in,” he said.
ISU’s Office of Sustainability will task a group of interns to serve as recycling ambassadors this coming fall, Reed said.
“They’ll be going to some of the different apartment complexes and sorority and fraternity houses and encouraging everyone to just be aware of what they’re consuming and where it should go,” she said.
The Ecology Action Center is offering recycling toolkits to landlords and can provide educational materials upon request, like customized fliers and posters, said Brown.
“We want to encourage rental companies, if they do have questions or a need for assistance or a consultation, to reach out to us. We’re happy to help,” he said.
No Recycling Cops
Multifamily property owners have until Aug. 1 to begin offering recycling. With finding space typically a hurdle, many apartment owners have added 95-gallon recycling containers, Coulter said. A few have done larger 2- or 4-yard containers.
The Town of Normal is not initially requiring recycling containers to be visually walled off (screened), as is required for waste containers. That could happen after 2022.
“We gave them essentially a three-year pass on screening these,” said Normal Director of Inspections Greg Troemel. “Our hope is that as it becomes a little more norm, and the tenant base gets used to having recycling, maybe the waste receptacle can become a little smaller. And then the recycling container can fit in that same enclosure. We won’t know until we see how it goes.”
The Town of Normal will have a relatively light touch on overall enforcement of the new ordinance. There won’t be recycling cops hitting the street Aug. 1 to write $100-a-day fines.
Instead, compliance will be rolled into the annual apartment inspection program, Troemel said. It will also be complaint-based.
“If someone were to call and say, ‘Hey, I moved back in and my friend moved into another building and they’ve got (recycling) and we don’t.’ Then we’d respond,” Troemel said.
Apartment owners have had plenty of time to adjust; the Normal Town Council approved the ordinance in July 2018, though it didn’t go into full force until Aug. 1, 2019.
“The way that it’s structured is, we really want to be able to work with multifamily property owners to make sure this works for everybody,” Koos said.
It will take several months to measure the ordinance’s success. Landlords have been adding recycling containers for the past several months, but most students are not back in town yet. Move-in week is also not a true representation of recycling use, Troemel said.
Over the long term, the ordinance should help increase the communitywide recycling rate—at 41.9% as of 2017. (The 2018 rate has not yet been released.) That’s the percentage of total municipal solid waste generated that is recycled instead of landfilled.
The ordinance will also require haulers to file an annual report with the Ecology Action Center, which tracks the recycling rate.
“We do of course anticipate this will bump things up,” Brown said. “There is still a significant volume of traditional recyclables being landfilled in our community.”
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