Blue Bin Blues
Springfield recycles excuses about waste disposal
July 2, 1992
Disposing of its own wastes is on 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 encourages 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, 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 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 equal what is saved on tipping fees by the resulting reduction in 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 that 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-tne-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 85–90 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 out the American flag 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. □