Naperville's recycling program was born when the city still had a lot of growing to do. And grow, it did.
Barbara Sielaff founded the Naperville Area Recycling Center in 1973, when the city had a population of about 28,000 and just 84 miles of road, said Beth Lang, Naperville's strategic services manager. That population has more than quintupled to reach roughly 145,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. There are now more than 450 miles of road, Lang said.
A statue to honor Sielaff has been erected at the Main Street Promenade on Van Buren Avenue. The bronze figure of the elegant woman with a flowing mane of hair signifies the beginning of what has become one of the most well-known recycling programs in Illinois. Naperville was the first city to begin curbside pickup for recyclables in the 1980s, and that program has grown along with the area's rapid development.
"All that was originally accepted at the center was paper, cans and glass, and they had to be separated," Lang said, adding that the city now contracts with Resource Management for its recycling services. "Now, most people have their bins picked up right at the curb, and you don't even have to sort your materials."
Sophisticated machinery at the recycling plant separates paper from plastics, glass, and items that shouldn't have ended up in the bin in the first place.
Greg Maxwell, senior vice president of Resource Management, gave a tour of the company's Plainfield facility last week so Patch could get an idea of how everything works. Key components in the separating process are considered proprietary and therefore were not allowed to be filmed.
A Peek Behind the Scenes of Area Recycling
Resource Management has three key facilities — one in Chicago Ridge that recycles all containers, the Plainfield site that takes care of paper, and an Earth City, Mo., plant that is similar to the one in Plainfield. Those locations accept recyclables from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan and Wisconsin, Maxwell said.
"You wouldn't build a factory in every town to manufacture cars, machinery or whatever else," he said. "Because of the big investments that are required, we end up taking in refuse from many different regions and shipping them where they need to be. Believe it or not, it's more cost effective to do it that way."
It's also not economical to invest in a factory that operates only eight hours a day, he said. The Plainfield recycling center, where all of Naperville's materials end up, staffs two shifts of workers every weekday. That allows the 600 tons of material that enter the center each day to be processed in about 18 to 20 hours.
About 70 percent — by weight — of what comes through the doors of the Plainfield plant is paper and 30 percent is containers, Maxwell said. He said glass, which makes up about half the weight of all containers brought in, has had a slight resurgence because some feel that plastic creates health concerns.
It's inevitable that non-recyclables enter the plant. The most common items that mistakenly wind up there are plastic grocery bags, electronics or sticky papers, such as stamps, Maxwell said.
"It costs us money not to recycle so we have an incentive to recycle anything we can," he said. "People certainly have good intentions … but residuals like garden hoses or garbage bags have to be disposed of properly."
Items are taken to the Plainfield facility by collection trucks. One by one, the trucks enter an open warehouse area to dump tons of recyclables at a time. By late morning and early afternoon, several dunes of refuse sit waiting to be processed.
Items are sorted using large, steel mechanical screens and the paper is bundled into bales — each weighing about a ton. The massive cubes of assorted newspaper, cardboard and mixed paper are arranged methodically throughout the warehouse of the Plainfield plant. Featuring a rainbow of colors from their components, the bales are stacked to form mini skyscrapers that workers carefully navigate around on foot or via forklifts.
Those bales are shipped to paper mills, while the containers are relocated to Chicago Ridge for processing.
Green Is In, Waste Is Out
Lang credits much of the success of the Naperville recycling program to residents' desire to be environmentally friendly.
"People are constantly looking for ways to live green," she said. "We just try to arm them with all the tools they need to do so."
A recycling drop-off center on Fort Hill Drive allows those who live in apartments and do not have curbside pickup to still do their part. They are invited to deposit their aluminum, paper, glass or plastic into the large dumpster that's located there.
"It generates a significant amount of business," Lang said. "I've been told we have about 90 vehicle trips there on Saturdays alone and the Dumpster is emptied three times a week."
A Household Hazardous Waste drop-off site in the 1900 block of Brookdale Road is accessible for residents who want to safely dispose of oil-based and alkyd paint, household chemicals or cleaners, fluorescent bulbs, pesticides and automotive fluids.
Even with all the amenities provided throughout the local recycling program, Lang said she is constantly brainstorming ways to increase participation.
"I think it's just a vision for the future," she said, adding that the next step to improving the program would be giving residents 65-gallon recycling carts instead of 21-gallon bins for curbside pickup.
A struggling economy currently makes such upgrades a challenge, Lang said, but they aren't out of the question down the road.
Even without local improvements, the recycling program will continue to use less energy, require less water and create fewer byproducts, Maxwell said.
"Not only is it a valuable, cost-friendly resource for those people who decide not to buy virgin materials, but it's a way to participate in the green movement," he said. "It's all about saving the environment."
- When you place an aluminum can in your recycling bin, it's back on the store shelf in about 60 days.
- Steel cans could become steel cans again, or a fender on your car.
- Glass and steel are infinitely recyclable.
- Paper loses about 10 percent of its recyclability each time it is processed in a plant.
- Glass is often crushed into sand and taken to fiberglass factories.
- Plastic containers can become many different items, including carpet fiber, clothing or stuffing. They can also be turned into lawn furniture, lumber and plastic fencing.
Source: Resource Management Companies