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Waste Not, Want Not

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Waste Not, Want Not

April roll-out for new SAIC recycling program

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is dumping contractor Recycling Services and commencing a new recycling regime with waste-industry giant Allied Waste. Here’s the scoop on what went down and what to do to make your existence more Earth-friendly.

In a “greener” institution, SAIC has made a considerable logistical alteration this month SAIC Campus Services will end their relationship with recycling contractor Recycling Services to undertake a new contract with Allied Waste.

Allied Waste is a big player in Chicago’s patchy recycling history, winning a bid to run the waste transportation for the City’s Blue Bag program, as well as owning and managing some of the city’s few sophisticated sorting centers for recycled materials. Allied already collects the School’s trash, and from April they will expand their service by transporting two streams out of SAIC: landfill waste, and recycled “commodities” (which Allied sells to buyers). According to Assistant Director of Campus Services Bert Schlingmann, this development is part of an ongoing series of strategies to improve recycling at the School.

“SAIC has made many good-hearted attempts at creating a recycling program. Each one was well-received and worked for a semester or two, but people move on, and the students who worked hard to keep it going graduate,” said Schlingmann. He added that Recycling Services provided “inconsistent” recycling pick-ups, resulting in too much waste build-up at the School.

“Some things that make this program different are… Allied Waste has made facility investments and continues to develop better systems to pick up and process the recyclable materials,” said Schlingmann. Here, Schlingmann is referring to processing centers Allied runs which many other private waste contractors in Chicago are not able to access.

What will this mean for students’ day-to-day experience? According to Schlingmann, “The bin system will not change that much… Allied Waste will be providing the office paper bins and a few other containers free of charge… We (SAIC) may be ordering new receptacles.”

Tim Sweeny, who works in sales at Allied Waste, had a slightly different interpretation of the “bin change” situation at SAIC, noting that “smaller separated recycling containers” would be provided by Allied for every classroom and larger receptacles called “talls” would be placed “anywhere you can buy soda or pop.” (This might prove to be a peculiar bin-placement strategy. Most people tend not to finish their drinks in front of a vending machine, but take them to classrooms, studios or lounge areas.)

Like many recycling programs in Chicago, the key to differentiating bin types at SAIC will be the type of plastic-bag liner. Clear plastic bags are to be used for plastic and metal recycling, the paper and cardboard receptacles are the small blue bins without liners, and trash cans will continue with the black bags currently in use.

The recycling situation in SAIC’s dorms will also differ: rooms will be provided with a container in which residents can mix their recyclables and empty them into a larger cart. Allied does the sorting in the dorms. Everywhere else in the School, the onus is on the students, staff and faculty to sort their materials.

“The biggest thing is participation,” said Sweeny. “Container awareness is our number-one focus,” explaining the need for more education and instructional material across the School. Schlingmann echoed this sentiment: “Community cooperation will be essential to the success of the program.”

But Allied’s program at SAIC is not without limitations. Glass recycling, for example, will not be available. The classic problem of recycling in Chicago has echoes on a smaller scale here: the bottom line is not environmental policy, it’s the market. There have to be keen buyers for recycled commodities. According to Sweeny, there is a “slower market for glass,” except for clear glass containers that are kept in a whole, un-smashed state (a near-impossible challenge for recyclers). Sweeny says Allied is still investigating ways to recycle glass from the SAIC campus.

It is surprising there is not much of a market for glass, given the use of smashed glass in asphalt and compound materials such as kitchen counter-tops. For Allied, it is currently a case where the costs outweigh the profits, again confirming the sobering fact that recycling only seems to happen on a large scale when it makes business sense for companies and governments to participate. The Daley administration’s reticence in this regard is a case in point

At SAIC’s February “State of the School Meeting,” a concern repeatedly voiced by students was that if glass will not be recyclable, then the School’s food services should not sell glass products. (Nor, for that matter, should polystyrene still be in use at Sonny’s Cafe, if we’re going to try to be sustainable about anything.) According to Tara Sullivan, Director of Campus Life, “Regarding glass bottles, we will be working with our vendors to eliminate any glass bottled containers when those same products are available in alternate containers or when the glass bottled products are not top sellers. This should eliminate almost, but probably not all glass containers.” Sullivan adds that “we do have to keep in mind that some of the products that are very popular at SAIC may come in glass containers, and in those cases we may make the decision to keep some of those products and allow our community to decide.”

As for the polystyrene situation, Sullivan added, “I am currently speaking with a company that supplies food containers and other supplies that are more environmentally friendly. Once I understand what is available to us, we will be meeting with Kenmare and with Sonny’s to begin to phase in some (more environmentally sound items.”

A recycling contract with Allied Waste is no cheap deal for SAIC. Allied’s service is more expensive than Recycling Services’, but Schlingmann encourages a long-term economic view: “Recycling is not just a ‘Save the Earth’ issue, but also a new way of business… landfill availability is getting harder and more costly.”

The School can save money over time by having two separate waste systems. “We pay by the ton for trash removal, and it can get very costly. When cardboard, paper and plastic bottles are in the trash stream, it can throw off the volume that a Dumpster can hold, filling a Dumpster with air pockets. It sounds strange, but the more trash I can put in a Dumpster, the more we can save on trash cost. So for SAIC, the savings will bear out… The past program may have cost less, but we had serious problems with service.”

For more information on SAIC’s recycling plan, and for an overview Chicago’s sordid recycling history, see the April 2008 print issue of F Newsmagazine

One Response to Waste Not, Want Not

  1. […] and about the changes to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s recycling contractor (see that article here) … I now find myself committing a cardinal sin of anti-recycling […]