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Blue Bin Blues

Springfield recycles excuses about waste disposal

Illinois Times

July 2, 1992

Disposing of a city's wastes is one of the most basic obligations of any municipal government, but the City of Springfield has spent decades arguing not about the "how" of services such as recycling and leaf collection but whether and why.


Recycling is much in the news these days. There was Lincoln Library's used book sale on the 19th and 20th, and the announcement that the Beach Boys have been booked into the State Fair, and the auction by Springfield police of 200 unclaimed bicycles. Even the recommendation (by Governor Jim "James" Edgar's task force on higher education governance) that SSU become a part of the University of Illinois is recycling of a sort.


But the news that had Springfield's Earth-Firsters buzzing was Mayor Ossie Langfelder's decision to not participate in the city's pilot curbside recycling program. The mayor found the blue bins distributed for the purpose to be "ugly" and the prospect of finding dozens of them lined up on the curb on collection day apparently offends the mayor as much as the rest of us would be offended if we found our front yard littered with aldermen. Only after much public criticism of his decision did the mayor grudgingly reverse himself and agree to join the blue bin brigade.


Langfelder's aesthetic is grounded in Teutonic tidiness; he objected to the display of advertising on the now-virginal outfield fences at Lanphier Park, and he certainly likes to keep city council debates uncluttered by differences of opinion. He lives on the near southwest side on a street as nice as you would expect a mayor's neighborhood to be, one of those streets where folks work very hard to keep the ugliness of their lives indoors where the neighbors can't see it. The street is not disfigured by interesting landscaping or innovative architecture, although the pickup trucks and recreational vehicles parked here and there would be ticketed as eyesores in the Illinois towns whose official standards of ugliness are even more rigorous than the mayor's.


It is silly to argue matters of taste, I know, but silly arguments are what city government is all about. The blue bins are no uglier than the sight of, say, badly dressed school children on their ways home, or political yard signs, or middle-aged men in shorts mowing their front yards. I am told that curbside recycling has already been under way in three of Springfield's newer subdivisions—the kinds of places people move to when they conclude that the old neighborhood has too many mayors living in it—and the practice has touched off no panic selling.


The mayor's initial decision was significant only in its effect on the city's fledgling curbside recycling program. The State Journal-Register reported that ten people canceled their requests, which says something about the power of the mayor to sway his townspeople. But even those few defections are significant, considering that only about 5,000 households had signed up as of mid-June, well short of the target of 10,000.


The mayor said he already recycles, but he must know that not many Springfieldians do. Curbside pickup in the only way that recycling will work on any scale; a people that refrains from cooking meals for their own living children because it is inconvenient will not leap to the chore of rinsing, de-labeling, separating, storing, and hauling recyclables for the sake of generations unborn.


Springfield's solid waste disposal plans are complicated by its cumbersome system of private waste hauling, and by profound political disputes. The result is that the city lags well behind other Illinois cities when it comes to recycling.


Oak Park for example has offered curbside recycling to its homeowners citywide since 1990. Officials there expect that this year the cost of providing the service will be paid for by savings on tipping fees resulting from less  waste going to local landfills; beginning next year, costs to the town for solid waste disposal will be reduced overall, with expanding savings every year thereafter. The sixties-style zealot whose firm had the recycling contract was recently outbid by the garbage conglomerate Browning-Ferris Industries—a certain sign that recycling has outgrown the let's-be-nice-to-the-earth stage.


Oak Park does not pick up plastics at curbside and does not require that residents separate metals and glass in the bins. Oak Park's program also was simpler in conception; the city simply contracted with a firm that gave every house a bin, and a homeowner "signed up" by simply putting that bin out with regular trash on collection day. There was no changes in rates—garbage pickup is paid for out of general municipal taxes—and no special incentives to participate, beyond a vague promise that recycling would someday keep taxes for waste disposal from going up. Nevertheless, participation even during Oak Park's initial pilot phase in 1988 was around 75 percent, and today 85 to 90 percent of the single-family households in the town take part.


By contrast, Springfield has roughly 31,000 households that have contracts with private trash haulers, so the 5,000 sign-ups so far means a participation rate of 16 percent. City Hall recycling guru "Bert" Merriam bravely calls this "not excellent but pretty good for the first time," and indeed it isn't bad. Recycling is one of those behaviors that varies markedly by class, like voting or changing one's underwear every day, and participation rates in Springfield's Oak Park-like neighborhoods are much higher than in the city as a whole.


As it happens, Oak Park uses blue bins too, although theirs are slightly smaller (fourteen gallons) than the one Langfelder finds so gauche. Oak Park recycling officials report no complaints about the looks of the bins, indeed were puzzled by the question. Oak Parkers put their blue bins on the curb with pride, the way others put the American flag on the porch on the Fourth of July.


The mayor might be happier in River Forest. River Forest is one of Chicago's upscale western suburbs, and for a long time was favored as an address by mobsters and others who share the mayor's high standards of civic decorum. River Foresters put their recyclables in tasteful green bins with matching lids, and leave them not on the curb but at the top of their driveways. They have to pay more to haulers to fetch the bins from there, but while the landfill shortage may have forced River Foresters to recycle, they have not abandoned the principle that Langfelder is trying to uphold, which is that the ugliness caused by our wasteful ways ought to go where we don't have to look at it. If we can't do that anymore in a landfill at the edge of town, or on Third World mountainsides being gouged for bauxite ore, we will keep it in a box with a lid on it, where the neighbors won't see. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Journal of the Illinois

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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