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Good Growing

A story of recycling for rural Illinois

hand holding recycling logo

Some memories stick out. Around the second or third grade, my teacher wheeled the television cart into the classroom which to an eight-year-old was cause for celebration. Was it going to be a movie or some type of educational show? We didn’t care. TV in school was a novelty and exciting, even if we still learned something.

The teacher popped in the VHS and turned off the lights. It was time to learn about…recycling? The video took us on a journey from a forest to a papermill, to a classroom, to the recycling plant, and then back to the classroom. We learned recycling saves our natural resources like trees and keeps our landfills from filling up. I made up my mind then that recycling was a good thing.

That was over thirty years ago. Yet, over the recent decade, more and more Illinoisans are losing access to recycling. There are some big factors at play here and many Americans have learned there is more to recycling than tossing their waste in a bin and imagining as I did as a child it will go and get turned into something else and stay out of the landfill.

As global recycling markets collapsed, we learned that much of our recycling wastes were being hauled to other parts of the planet and in some cases, not being recycled at all. It’s important to note that recycling is not a public service but a business. If a waste hauler can’t sell your recyclables, then they aren’t recycled and go to the landfill.

As someone who grew up separating my recycling, I found co-mingled recycling (throwing all of it in one bin) to be very easy! Unfortunately, it’s not the best system for recycling. Co-mingled recycling requires more labor or technology to sort and has a greater chance of contamination. For instance, when smashed glass gets embedded into cardboard, neither can be recycled. Recycling is more complicated than I thought.

What is the fix to all these recycling obstacles? It will require an effort of economic and political means, but just as importantly from citizens. As recycling access disappears, there have been grassroots efforts working to provide some means of recycling even if it is only for glass or cardboard. For instance, as rural recycling access vanished for McDonough County, Illinois the Macomb Women’s Club came to University of Illinois Extension asking if we had any tools to survey the county residents. The question was simple, “Would you use recycling services?” And what we found from our 525 responses is that 83% of McDonough County residents would use a recycling drop-off center at least once a month. With 77% willing to pay a small fee for recycling access. With this survey, the Macomb Women’s Club has begun to build momentum toward recycling access for rural McDonough County. This and other efforts are happening across Illinois.

The issue of recycling has changed because our consumer and therefore waste habits have changed. This past decade (notably since 2020) we purchase more items online to be shipped to our homes. Where items were once shipped in bulk to local stores, they are now shipped individually to our homes. Homeowners are dealing more with the packaging waste that stores used to deal with, chiefly cardboard. 

While our waste streams have changed, the lessons of yesterday still ring true from that old VHS on recycling. Recycling benefits us all by managing natural resources, protecting our air, water, and soil, and prolonging the lifespan of our landfills. But recycling is also complicated and is going to take work to make sure every Illinoisan has accurate information and access to effective recycling services.

Good Growing Fact of the Week: On average, an individual American generates 34 pounds of trash per week (US EPA, 2018). Much of that weight is food waste, which creates methane when landfilled. Many communities are turning to food and yard waste composting programs to recycle these organic materials to feed our farms and gardens. The Four Seasons Gardening series is hosting a free Basics of Home Gardening webinar on March 7. Sign up at

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Chris Enroth is a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Henderson, McDonough, Knox, and Warren counties since 2012. Chris provides horticulture programming with an emphasis on the home gardener, landscape maintenance personnel, and commercial landscapers. Additional responsibilities include coordinating local county Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteers - providing their training, continuing education, advanced training, seasonal events, and organizing community outreach programs for horticulture and conservation assistance/education. In his spare time, Chris enjoys the outdoors, lounging in the garden among the flowers (weeds to most).