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OUR VIEW: Recycling efforts don’t go to waste

January 5, 2019

Neighborhood beautification has been a high priority in Sterling and Rock Falls for many years. Both cities have secured grant funding to either erase blighted properties from the landscape or fix up vacant homes and get them back on the tax rolls.

While the cities have made great progress in gaining control of abandoned properties and working their way down lengthy demolition lists, several other cleanup challenges exist.

One has been what to do with electronics recyclables. The items were banned from landfills in 2012. The cities’ garbage haulers pick up other recyclables, but they don’t deal with e-waste. It is expensive to transport and recycle electronics, and it finally reached a point where dealing with it was a losing business proposition.

Who hasn’t had those old broken TVs that take four people to carry cluttering up their house or garage? With nowhere to take them, it was only a matter of time before people started dumping electronics trash in city landfills or streets. The cities were paying their workers to pick up TVs, computers and other e-waste from streets, ditches and alleyways.

After much planning and work by staff and volunteers in both cities, sites were set up for free electronics drop-offs. Evolving from one-time annual events, Sterling, in 2016, set up a permanent site at its Public Works building, and last year Rock Falls, with the help of Firehouse of God Ministries and the Sauk Valley Landlord Association, opened the Rock Falls Recycling Center.

Both cities made arrangements for URT Solutions of Janesville, Wisconsin, to haul the waste from the sites. Thanks to a fund set up by electronics manufacturers, much of the cost had been absorbed, saving residents from picking up the tab.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

A new law, effective this month, changed the state’s electronics waste recycling program. To be eligible for the new program and funding in 2019, counties had to opt into the program by March 2018. Nearly 60 municipalities opted in, but Whiteside wasn’t on the list.

The county said it wasn’t notified of the program changes, communicated through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and by the time the hauler informed the cities, it was too late to apply for this year. 

The hauler said it would continue to pick up both cities’ e-waste, but they’d have to pay for service. Sterling City Manager Scott Shumard estimates it will cost between $10,000 and $12,000 to transport the waste this year. The breakdown is about $700 per truckload, plus fuel reimbursement and an additional fee of 15 cents for each pound carted away.

To the credit of both cities, they plan to keep the programs in place and figure out a way to pay the transport bills, likely from the city garbage funds. The county plans to apply this year for the 2020 program, so why dismantle what has been built over many years?

While that’s a sizable unbudgeted expense, city officials realize that there is a cost for discontinuing the programs. City staff will be back on the streets, getting rid of what is dumped.

E-waste also is a public health issue. It contains harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, PCBs and chromium. The chemicals leach into soil, water and food, and are particularly dangerous when left in the heat.

It’s also worth noting that picking up the cost sends a signal that the cities are committed to the goals set forth in their strategic planning processes. This is the kind of public nuisance issue that detracts from their beautification efforts.

Although residents should be happy that the programs are still available at no cost, they also should be questioning how this happened. This is a classic example of how better intergovernmental communications can improve efficiencies and save taxpayers money.

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