New Sustainable Materials Roadmap Hopes to Curtail Waste Generation in Cook County

By Matt Baker

In the Great Lakes region, Illinois comes in second in the unenviable race for which state can generate the most garbage. The problem is exacerbated in Cook County, which falls well below national averages in both waste mitigation and rate of recycling. For environmental and financial reasons, these problems must be addressed.

According to a new report by the Delta Institute, the Chicago metropolitan region’s waste management system is on an unsustainable course that will lead not only to higher emissions but economic hardship. “How a community manages its waste material is a key indicator of its overall sustainability and its values,” said William Schleizer, Managing Director and Interim CEO at Delta Institute. “Given that, our region has a long road ahead to realign our values to support a more sustainable future, but this report gives us a good starting point.”

Landfill_compactorThere are two parallel problems: waste generated and where to put it. The average Cook County resident generates seven pounds of waste per day, which contrasts with the 4.4 pounds of the average American. The county’s 29% recycling rate also trails the national average of 34%. Additionally, the last landfill in Cook County, River Bend Prairie Landfill in Dolton, closed in 2015. Illinois has 21 years of landfill capacity remaining, which falls behind the other Great Lakes states.

“With Cook County’s only remaining landfill closed, we are now paying to dispose of our waste in neighboring states like Indiana,” said Deborah Stone, Chief Sustainability Officer, Cook County Department of Environmental Control. “While we’ve made significant progress in diverting building material and waste from landfills, this report provides important action recommendations for how we can continue to reduce, reuse and recycle our way to a more sustainable Cook County.”

The Delta Institute report recommends three specific areas of action, which they forecast can divert up to 76% of municipal solid waste from landfills. The first step is the prevention of organic waste. In Cook County, food waste accounts for 38% of residential municipal solid waste and 29% of waste in the industrial/commercial sector. Government agencies should challenge cafeterias, stores and restaurants to track their waste habits and adjust their food procurement to downsize on the products that they wind up throwing out. Efforts to divert excess food to other uses, such as to food banks, would have social and environmental benefits. Finally, educating the public about food waste can bring about major reductions.

Reuse is another strategy that can divert many materials without the added cost and energy use required to process materials for recycling. Cook County’s Demolition Debris Diversion ordinance mandates a 70% diversion rate for contractors, with a 5% reuse requirement for residential. The pieces are in place for market-based strategies that could divert much more. Particular opportunities have also been initiated to reuse office supplies and for the arts.

Though it is the poster child of environmentalism, recycling should be the last resort of the reduce-reuse-recycle triumvirate. Using less materials and giving those materials a second life will always be preferred to recycling. Market complexity has intensified this in recent years as manufacturers have responded to pressure to reduce the amount of plastic and glass used in their products. The weight of a half-liter plastic bottle has nearly been cut in half between 2000 and 2014, for example. This light-weighting has made the recycling market more costly, to the point that some municipalities have removed glass from their recycling programs.

That said, recycling remains an important component of our waste management strategy. Nearly all municipalities in Cook County provide curbside collection. Communities can make a difference by improving the quality of materials that are recycled and incorporating best practices in waste management into local waste contracts.

Composting of food waste is an often overlooked tactic. Food not only comprises a sizable portion of the waste stream, it generates methane as it decomposes, a greenhouse gas far more potent that carbon dioxide. Properly handled, food waste can be composted into fertilizer or anaerobically digested into biogas. “This report identifies the huge gaps in the emerging commercial food scrap composting sector in Illinois,” said Jennifer Walling, Executive Director, Illinois Environmental Council and Policy Chair, Illinois Food Scrap Coalition. “Delta Institute has provided steps and solutions to this problem that every individual, business, and government should follow.”

By recognizing how serious the waste management problem in Cook County is and following the roadmap to reduce, reuse and recycle, the report concludes that we can correct our course and still accrue significant environmental and economic benefits for local residents, institutions and municipalities.

Image: By Ropable – Own work, Public Domain

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