by Mick Dumke
A few days ago the Illinois EPA released its latest Annual Landfill Capacity Report.
Now that you've recovered from the excitement of this news, I'll explain: that's a document detailing how much waste residents and businesses in the state are generating each year, how much of it's being recycled or composted, and how much is being trucked to landfills. And the latest edition, covering 2008, shows that the state continues to produce garbage at a rate that's dangerous to the environment and costly to the economy. Our way of doing business in Chicago is mostly to blame.
The good news, if that's what you call it, is that the recession has actually led to a reduction in the amount of waste produced in Chicago—when people have less to spend, they tend to have less to throw into the trash.
In addition, as the pace of development in Chicago has slowed, so has the amount of debris generated by construction and demolition. Plus, thanks to laws requiring that C&D debris be recycled, waste companies have developed new facilities to keep that concrete, wood, and metal refuse from being trucked to landfills.
The result is that Chicago residents and businesses produced 8,155,086 tons of waste in 2008, about 35 percent of the statewide total. That was down from the record-high of 10,361,381 in 2006.
But it still means that the average Chicagoan produced a whopping 15.4 pounds of trash a day. By comparison, the average for everyone in Illinois was 9.9 pounds a day.
City officials still haven't developed a comprehensive plan for household and business recycling, resulting in thousands of tons of reusable metal, plastic, glass, and paper being unnecessarily thrown away every year. In 2008, even after most heavy C&D waste was recycled, 3,686,131 tons of Chicago garbage were trucked to landfills in other parts of Illinois or nearby states. Since then, the Daley administration has stalled expansion of its Blue Cart program for homes and small apartment buildings, leaving thousands without a convenient way to recycle.
There are a long list of environmental disadvantages to landfilling garbage: it's a waste of space in the ground, many of the materials don't ever decompose, there's a potential for toxic leaks, the gas burned from trucking garbage hundreds of miles adds to our air pollution and climate change problems, and it pushes up prices for consumers, since the prices we pay for goods include the costs of landfill fees and producing virgin materials. Recycling can cut costs; producing less garbage works even better.
Unfortunately, we're going in the wrong direction: Chicago's waste output is now more than 300 percent what it was in the early 1980s. Across the U.S. it's gone up about 65 percent.
That doesn't mean we're in danger of running out of landfill space—waste companies keep buying more land for it, and the state estimates we're more than 20 years away from using our current capacity.
But landfills are getting farther and farther away from the city. "There is a moratorium against landfills within Chicago’s city limits," the state report notes. "Land prices are high in Chicago. Waste generated by Chicago Metropolitan region’s population may become problematic for other Illinois counties and nearby states. Capacity available at landfills in at least two adjacent states, Indiana and Wisconsin, may also be affected."
Which of course means that the cost of getting rid of our trash will probably keep rising too.
Click on this link if you'd like to see a PDF with detailed waste figures for the last decade in Chicago: CHICAGO_WASTE_PRODUCTION.pdf