New study: Illinois is facing serious recycling challenges 

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Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

Report addresses recycling programs’ problems and potential solutions statewide

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Illinois is failing to make progress in its recycling efforts, according to a new study from Illinois PIRG Education Fund. The second annual State of Recycling in Illinois highlights structural challenges, the rise of plastic, the effects of failing to recycle, the state’s new chemical recycling law, and trends in the state’s recycling data. 

The report reflects on how reliance on East Asian export markets, which are no longer reliably taking American waste, have impacted some statewide programs. It also shows that this is only part of the problem.

“The reality is plastics are so hard to recycle and so low value that we could only consistently afford to collect and recycle it when China was willing to buy it.” said Illinois PIRG Education Fund State Director Abe Scarr. “Now that we are left to deal with it ourselves, plastic is choking our recycling system as effectively as it chokes ocean life.”  

The report outlines how Illinois, and especially Chicago, performs poorly compared to the rest of the country when it comes to recycling.

Along with assessing state data, the report presents wide-ranging reforms necessary to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or is burned every year. Policies include cutting back on the amount of unnecessary plastic waste being created, encouraging the reuse of already existing objects, and making sure that products are recycled at the end of their working life.

“This report confirms what we’ve known for a long time now— we need to reduce pollution, transform waste management, expand and update our recycling systems, while moving markets towards sustainable, innovative packaging or else we’ll continue to fight a losing battle,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

“The Chicago Recycling Coalition advocates for proactive strategies to keep plastic out of commingled recycling and waste streams altogether, including making Illinois the 11th state to have a container deposit, or ‘Bottle Bill.’ In other states such as Michigan and Oregon, a small deposit has proven to be a powerful economic incentive resulting in redemption rates of over 90%,” said Carter O’Brien from the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

“It’s entirely within our power to fix the system, what is missing is the necessary sense of urgency,” said U.S. PIRG Education Fund Zero Waste Director Alex Truelove, who co-authored the report. “Recycling, composting and waste reduction efforts will need to play an important role in the fight against microplastic pollution, climate change and other environmental challenges.”