Garbage in—then what?
June 16, 1988
When I wrote this piece about recycling, I noted that much of what was then being dumped into landfills could be rescued, reclaimed, resold, and reused, but that the best way to deal with solid waste is to produce less of it in the first place. Alas, after thirty years, recycling remains unpopular in Illinois, and product redesign to reduce waste generation, like that required in much of Europe, hardly exists at all.
“Who would have thought that the most fascinating topic of the 1990s would be garbage?" I smiled at the remark, which came from an editor who hails from greater New York—New Jersey to be specific, which has less space in which to put its trash than any state in the U.S., and the Big Apple itself which generates more of it per person than any city in the U.S. A few years ago her assumption that the rest of the country is fascinated with garbage would have seemed parochial. But while New York and New Jersey lead Illinois in the quality of both governors and sports teams, Illinois is rapidly closing the garbage gap. Chicago and environs will be out of landfill space in a few years, and they're even recycling in Rockford. Kevin Greene, lobbyist in Springfield for the Illinois Environmental Council, predicts that as northeast Illinois runs out of landfill space it will begin shipping it downstate by rail or barge to be landfilled here. "We're going to have garbage wars," he says, not entirely in jest.
It is thus in everyone's interest to reduce the amount of trash that needs to be disposed of. Illinois has already officially adopted waste reduction as its preferred approach to garbage in the recently passed Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Act. The pending close of Springfield's only garbage landfill (on the Sangamon River off Sand Hill Road) has stirred local officials to a fever of action as well. Some are reading magazine articles about recycling or going to meetings, while others boldly propose fact-finding missions to Decatur or Peoria to see if anybody there knows what to do.
There are only three things any city can do with its garbage. Dig another hole. Burn it. Or make less of it. The first two options are easier, but only the last one makes sense. Much of what gets dumped could be rescued, reclaimed, resold, and reused—newsprint, aluminum beverage cans, glass bottles, "yard waste." The rest can be reduced in volume before it gets to the dump, or manufactured out of recyclable materials. Don't use as much, in short, and try to reuse what you do.
Of course, waste is what makes the economy run. The stuff that goes out the back door in plastic bags isn't the only waste the typical house produces. The new houses being built on the west side of Springfield are being built to waste energy, for example. And the crap which gets flushed down the toilet contains the same nutrients which the farmer up the road pays hard-borrowed money to have synthesized for him from natural gas and shipped here from Algeria.
I spent an invigorating morning recently with an engineer who specializes in the design of "circular" waste treatment systems. His designs proceed from the premise that goods—clean water, a Pepsi can, a warm bathroom—are not products to be used and discarded but materials which exist in successive forms, all usable. He wondered aloud whether the human brain perceives order in so naturally linear a way that people cannot (as Blake might have put it had he belonged to the Sierra Club) see the world in a discarded bottle.
Myself, I think the bias is cultural, an industrial way of thinking. I must tell a story here on some of my friends. Having some household junk to be discarded, they'd made their first ever trip to the landfill north of town. They didn't like it much, and with reason; a hole into which 170,000 Americans dump their leftovers is bound to be big, ugly, and smelly, the more so when that hole sits in a sylvan river valley. Visiting them a few days later, I joined in a discussion on the familiar topic, Why Are Things Like That Allowed?
While we talked, I drank imported beer provided generously by my hosts, a brand available in Springfield only in nonreturnable glass bottles. By the time I finished my tipsy disquisition—after three beers I can even convince myself—the local solid waste stream was flowing measurably fuller. Each empty bottle had been quickly "cleaned up" and dropped into a plastic bag which would eventually add to the profit of and speed the demise of the local landfill.
The impending landfill crisis thus begins not in the statehouse or the offices of the Illinois EPA but in the kitchens and dining rooms of Illinois. When one chooses a certain beer one chooses a certain kind of world. (In this case one with lots of glass bottles buried in it.) Trash doesn't become a problem when it is discarded, it is a problem when it is purchased; change purchases and you change the problem. Stacks of bundled newspapers are the virgin forests of urbanized late 20th century America, and crushed aluminum cans the only untapped ores we have left. The questions facing us for the rest of the century is not how to get rid of them, but how to exploit them.
Unhappily, making environmentally responsible choices in an economy which caters to the most common denomination means giving up some personal convenience. You must give up your favorite beer because it is not sold in returnables, or you must add a trip to a recycling center to an already crowded list of Saturday errands. Few people are willing to do either. After all, people are appalled by landfills only once in a while but they are self-indulgent all the time.
Fortunately human conduct is reformable even if human impulses are not. For example, waste is artificially cheap. The cost of nonreturnable containers does not reflect the true social cost of making, transporting, and disposing of them. Taxes and/or deposits can be imposed on their use, both to deter their use (by making them more expensive) and to capture revenues to ameliorate those social costs (by funding pollution abatement programs, for example). Using price to dry up waste streams can get tricky however. In New York State, unredeemed beverage container deposits now amount to something like $50 million, which is the price New Yorkers are willing to pay to not be bothered. Make the return on redeemed recyclables too high, however, and trash becomes a tempting target for street thieves and worse.
Partly because of such problems, the garbage bills being talked about in Illinois include the threat of compulsion as a compliance mechanism. That compulsion may be visited upon municipalities (which must pay higher dumping fees at regional landfills unless they have recycling programs) or landfill operators (which are not allowed to accept certain recyclable wastes such as leaves). Individual householders in several states are or soon will be required to separate recyclables from the rest of their trash before pickup; mixed garbage will simply be left uncollected by authorities.
Under such a system, uncollected trash is likely to be deposited mysteriously in neighbors' bins or alongside roads by resentful libertarians. When it is indulged without any sense of obligation to the community, the cherished American freedom from civic compulsion is little more than the freedom of a child recklessly at play. The public is eventually compelled to protect itself from itself. "Are we ready for garbage police?" asked a writer to the Chicago Tribune the other day; the answer is, we'd better be. In some Japanese cities you must label your garbage as yours, so idolaters who don't separate can be traced and fined.
The best government is not one which governs least but which is needed least. Alas, lots of government will be needed to accomplish any of the serious waste reduction measures so far proposed: bans on non-biodegradable plastics in favor of recyclable plastics or no plastics at all; limits on use of display packaging; refundable deposits paid on problematic products like batteries and cars to spur their return to designated collection centers; mandated proportions of secondary (recycled) material to be used as feedstock in certain products; standards for product durability, including the redesign of basic appliances with standardized, disassemblable parts which can be salvaged and reused.
Such steps will reduce the potential toxicity of municipal landfills, but their ultimate benefit may be economic. We spend vast resources of energy, manpower, and material doing what doesn't need doing and doing it in the least efficient way. (Throwaway cameras! Fast food!) The U.S. leads the world in the production of cardboard bubble-boards and throwaway diapers while it buys its steel and its cars and its consumer electronics from abroad. It is no accident that the nations which are so far ahead of the U.S. in solid waste regulation—Japan, Scandinavia, France—also tend to outperform the U.S. economically. This is not specifically the result of the profitable recovery and reuse of "waste" materials (although the returns are substantial) but of the generalized efficiency ethic at work throughout their production and marketing systems.
America used to be too rich to bother. It isn't anymore, which is why a few people may finally listen to the kind of advice contained in studies such as "Solid Waste Management Alternatives," prepared by Elliott Zimmerman of the state's Department of Energy and Natural Resources. "While the solid waste problem in Illinois is serious, it has not yet [become] . . . as critical as in, for example, New Jersey, where the severity of the problem has produced public demands for Draconian measures," Zimmerman notes. 'There is still time in Illinois to study the costs and benefits of different waste reduction policies . . . before the severity of the problem forecloses many of the options still available." ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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."
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.
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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
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.
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.
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
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.
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.