NORMAL — McLean County recycled more than ever in 2018 by a wide margin, and officials are optimistic that rate will not only hold but improve.
"It does seem like a tall order to keep that sort of trend, but I do think we will continue to grow," said Michael Brown, executive director of the Normal-based Ecology Action Center, of a 5 percent spike from 2017 in percentage of municipal solid waste (MSW) recycled. "It's an ongoing evolution."
Of 204,000 tons of MSW generated in the county last year, 109,000 was recycled, or 46.4 percent. In 2017, the recycling rate was 41.9 percent, continuing a multi-year growth trend from 2014's 37.7 percent. Officials hope to hit 50 percent by 2022.
"A likely contributing factor to the improved recycling rate is an improvement in the quality of data received by the EAC (from) local entities," according to a news release. Brown said that includes the city of Bloomington, town of Normal and private waste haulers. "EAC staff is working to improve the process and reduce the opportunity for errors or omissions."
Those gains are in spite of an EAC campaign to encourage residents to be more discriminating about what they put in the recycling bin. EAC leaders are trying to cut down on "wishcycling" — well-meaning residents putting trash in the bin thinking it may be recyclable, contaminating the waste stream.
The quality of recycled products has become a higher priority for companies, including Normal's Midwest Fiber, that face a tough market for their materials. Midwest Fiber spent $3 million upgrading its Normal facility this spring.
"We have been working for over a year now on an anti-contamination campaign, re-educating the public on what is and is not acceptable in your recycling. We're trying to make it all more accessible, understandable and easier for everyone to apply," said Brown. "It's a huge priority to continue to increase not only recycling but also the quality of recycling."
Brown said 2019's rate may get a boost, and 2020's an even bigger one, from Normal's new multifamily recycling ordinance, which took effect Aug. 1. That requires apartment owners to offer on-site recycling options, a long-time ask from Illinois State University students with limited mobility options.
"This hopefully affects recycling in a positive way, more folks recycling, and may affect some of the drop-box locations," said Normal Public Works Director Wayne Aldrich. The town handed off its drop-off recycling bins to Midwest Fiber in 2017, and the company offers drop-offs at 422 S. White Oak Road.
Aldrich said the town's inspections department will keep an eye on whether landlords are complying with the new ordinance.
"Some folks have contacted me about compliance and questions, and I think there's probably varying degrees of compliance out there," he said.
EAC led a new 20-year solid waste plan passed last year that suggested new steps including multifamily ordinances.
"We are continuing to look at expanding other initiatives," said Brown, including more commercial recycling and special event recycling. "Recycling is good, but avoiding generation of waste to begin with is better. There's a lot of opportunity there."