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As ISU Students Push, Normal To Decide How Far To Go With Recycling

Ryan Denham
Maya Rejmer and Jason Hale from the Illinois State University Student Government Association.

Illinois State University students who’ve been fighting for an easier way to recycle at their off-campus apartments say they’re concerned about the long-term health of their planet.

Even with that generational view of the environment, they’re getting a bit impatient.

The Normal Town Council is expected to decide this spring how to make it easier for those living in apartments—primarily ISU students—to recycle. The town is considering several options, ranging from a pilot program for a small cluster of apartment buildings, to a townwide ordinance requiring all multifamily ordinances to provide its residents with a recycling option.

For Jason Hale, an off-campus senator for ISU’s Student Government Association, it’s time for a townwide ordinance.

“I don’t think (a pilot program) is good enough,” Hale said. “The environment, in my opinion, should be the No. 1 thing we should be focused on. You can’t fight for civil rights, you can’t fight for political rights, you can’t really do anything if you don’t have an earth to fight for that on.”

The Town Council is expected to take action in March or April on the recycling issue. Their discussion is guided by the county’s new 20-year solid waste management plan that the town recently endorsed. The recycling provisions in that plan sparked controversy in January when it came before the McLean County Board, with some Republicans unsuccessfully trying to strip language from it related to how municipalities like Normal might mandate recycling options.

What Students Want

Normal seems headed toward some sort of multifamily recycling program. The question is how far it will go, and how quickly.

ISU student leaders have been pushing this issue for years. They’ve lobbied the town and recently collected over 3,000 petitions from students seeking better recycling options.

Many ISU students come from more urbanized or affluent areas near Chicago, where comprehensive recycling programs are the norm.

“It was very shocking for me to find none of that here,” said Maya Rejmer, secretary of sustainability for ISU’s Student Government Association.

For ISU students living in apartments, recycling options are limited. They can bring their recyclables to one of eight dropboxes around Normal. But for students like Rejmer who don’t have a car, that’s not easy. And those options might become even more limited: The town is considering the elimination of those recycling dropboxes as part of next year’s budget cuts.

“I don’t have a car. I can’t go to (the dropboxes). So I’m just gonna end up throwing my recycling in with my other garbage (and) contaminating potential recycling,” said Rejmer.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he’s inclined to push for a townwide ordinance right away, rather than a limited pilot program.

“It’s either a good idea or it’s not a good idea,” Koos said.

The mayor said several key details need to be worked out related to how different apartment owners will be impacted. But he noted the ISU student lobbying effort.

“It would help the community as a whole to have less material going to the landfill and diverted to a recycling stream,” said Koos.

Landlord Concerns

The Town Council may get some pushback, or at least tough questions, from landlords.

Young America is one of the largest local apartment companies, managing 4,600 student beds. General Manager Andy Netzer is one of several local landlords meeting with Town of Normal staff to provide feedback and ask questions about what’s coming.

Credit Staff / WGLT
Single-family homes in Normal already have access to recycling through curbside pickup.

Netzer said he knows multifamily recycling is “where we’re headed.”

“We’d like to be a part of the solution as it is developed,” Netzer said.

A chief concern, he said, is that students may contaminate recycling bins with garbage, leading to potentially costly separation. A constantly churning population of students further complicates education efforts that might mitigate that risk, Netzer added.

“There’s still the fact that student housing looks a lot like ‘Animal House’ a lot of the time. Even with some appropriate measures to offer recycling, there’s some concern from property managers that they’ll just get filled with garbage. So we’re cautious with that,” he said.

Landlords are also worried about the cost, Netzer said. It’s unlikely that apartment companies would be able to just tack on an extra $3 to $5 on monthly rents to offset the cost, he said.

“I think it will largely will be an expense that doesn’t see comparable offsetting revenue,” Netzer said. “That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. But it should be a consideration.”

Netzer said Young America would be open to participating in a pilot program. As would Chuck Kiven, principal at Walk 2 Class, which owns and manages 302 bedrooms in the community.

“I’m an open-minded human being. I’ll listen to anything,” he said.

But Kiven has concerns about how much it will cost. He also thinks policymakers should focus on another simpler problem first: garbage and littering.

“To think (students) all of a sudden gonna start recycling is, to me, the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. They first need to learn how to take care of themselves and put their garbage in its place,” said Kiven. “Those are the things we should be putting some effort.”

Courtney Lahr, property manager at Walk 2 Class, was part of the Ecology Action Center’s multifamily housing stakeholder group that helped shape the new 20-year plan. She said she’s a huge personal recycling advocate and agrees that students have very limited options currently. But she’s still sensitive to the cost issue for landlords like Walk 2 Class.

McLean County’s recycling rate was just 41.6 percent as of 2016, she noted.

“That number needs to go up. For sure. For sure,” Lahr said.

What Urbana Does

Other college towns have dealt with this in myriad ways.

Urbana, home to the University of Illinois, has had a city-run multifamily recycling program since 1999, now covering 9,000 units. Landlords pay $3.18 per unit, per month, to the city as a recycling tax, which is billed quarterly. The city uses that money to contract with a vendor (Midwest Fiber) to pick up all multifamily recycling. That contract with Midwest Fiber is around $215,000 annually. Urbana also provides 95-gallon recycling carts for apartments, plus some get cardboard-only dumpsters.

Lodge exterior
Credit Cindy Le / WGLT
The Lodge apartments near Illinois State University are managed by Young America.

The program occasionally deals with contamination issues—trash mixed in with recycling—but it’s manageable with education and outreach, said Courtney Kwong, the program’s coordinator.

“The most important thing is getting people in the know about what’s acceptable in the program so they know what they can put in their green recycling carts,” Kwong said.

Midwest Fiber has been the Urbana vendor for only around seven months, after it acquired a separate company that was already doing the job. The company sees multifamily recycling as a growing area of the market, said Todd Shumaker, Midwest Fiber’s director of sales and marketing.

Depending on what Normal does, Midwest Fiber would be interested in pursuing that business too, he said. Midwest Fiber opened its $8 million single-stream facility in west Normal in 2011.

“The biggest challenge is—and this is just recycling in general—who’s responsible for the education and how does that happen. That’s a topic that our industry is just talking about pretty regularly right now anyway,” said Shumaker.

It’s unclear if Normal would pursue a top-down, city-run program like Urbana’s. Normal is cutting staff and programs and might be reluctant to add more of both to support recycling.

That would leave the program in the hands of the landlords themselves, perhaps with some assistance or administration from the Ecology Action Center (EAC), which drafted the 20-year plan.

The plan itself proposes a pilot program as one option. One concept would be to pick a specific part of Normal with a ton of student apartments. The EAC is tasked with bidding out both garbage and recycling services for those apartments. The efficiencies found with handling both services in such a tightly routed area will save money on labor, fuel, and equipment, lowering overall costs, said Michael Brown, executive director of the Ecology Action Center.

“Can we pass along those savings to the rental companies, therefore keeping it cost-neutral for them and for the tenants, so that it’s a win-win across the board?” Brown said.

ISU student leaders like Hale and Rejmer want to just cut to the chase.

They say their petitions show students are willing to pay an extra few dollars per month in rent if that gives them easy access to recycling. And they pushed back on the contamination issue, suggesting ISU student organizations could lead education and outreach efforts.

“With those landlords, and I’m just being honest, they’re throwing in all of these unnecessary complications that aren’t really valid. As a landlord, you understand you’re gonna deal with college students, right? Wouldn’t you be willing to work with whatever is going to happen to figure this thing out? Isn’t this what you signed up for in the first place? Because if you really have a problem (with this), then why not move to a place where you don’t have to deal with college students?”

“You chose to be here, so now you’ve got to deal with us, and this is what we want,” he said.

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GLT's full story about recycling in Normal.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.