Trash to Treasure

Trash to Treasure

Local residents are taking recycling into their own hands, protecting their health, the health of the planet, and the city’s budget.

Do you ever think about what happens to your gnarled toothbrushes, lifeless water filters, or cruddy plastic bags after they plop into your trash bin?

Sherry Skalko did.

During the pandemic, Skalko, who lives in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, says her daughter’s toothbrush radicalized her. “I knew it didn’t belong in the recycling bin, but I didn’t want to put it into a landfill either.” There had to be another way, she remembers thinking.

Skalko signed up for TerraCycle’s free dental hygiene recycling program and enlisted the help of friends and neighbors to fill the box and send it back to TerraCycle for recycling.

Skalko didn’t stop there. She went on to form Reduce Waste Chicago, focusing on broader community recycling. The nonprofit collects a select list of items at pop-up events citywide and collaborates with artists and organizations to collect and reuse materials. Reduce Waste Chicago also partners with schools to start environmental clubs and execute classroom clean-outs.

“We produce a lot more waste than can go in our blue bins,” says Skalko, a former journalist. However, she adds, “The burden is on the producer. It’s not your fault or mine that an item we need to sustain ourselves is packaged in a plastic that isn’t recyclable.”

Recycling has a direct link to public health. Because it keeps waste out of landfills and incinerators, it decreases the amount of harmful toxins that escape into the air, land, and water. This minimizes people’s exposure to substances linked with neurological disorders, respiratory conditions, and cancer.

Many people want to keep as much household waste out of landfills as possible, for the health of humans and the planet. But for products that neighborhood recycling companies don’t take, people often don’t know what to do with them — or don’t have a convenient way to get them to a recycler that does accept them.

Reduce Waste Chicago isn’t the only company that reuses items that would otherwise end up in the trash. The Recyclery, for example, accepts and repurposes bikes and bike parts, while The WasteShed repurposes materials for artists and schools.

In 2022, Reduce Waste Chicago kept 9 tons of material out of landfills — which also saves the city money on landfill space. The organization relies on individuals bringing in items, such as cork, contact lens cases, and holiday lights.

Meanwhile, Abt, the largest electronics retailer in Chicago, is on a similar mission but at a company-wide level.

Instead of asking customers to bring in product packaging, Abt recycles the cardboard and Styrofoam with every appliance they deliver. The company receives seven truckloads of appliances every day, all protected in boxes by copious amounts of Styrofoam. Where does it go?

One of Abt’s biggest successes is with Styrofoam, which accounts for about 1% of all waste, but is estimated to take up 10% to 40% of landfill space. To make matters worse, the city of Chicago can’t recycle it.

None of the Styrofoam that comes into Abt makes it to the trash. Abt uses a custom machine to compact the material by a factor of 50, then turns the goo-like coils that the machine extrudes into picture frames, plastic wood, or blocks of insulation, which a third-party subsequently purchases.

“Unlike metal or paper, Styrofoam isn’t something that is worth recycling financially,” says Mike Abt, co-president of Abt. “But it’s good for the environment, so you go through the trouble [of processing it] because it’s the right thing to do.” Abt’s efforts prevent roughly 650,000 pounds of Styrofoam from going into landfills every year.

As a college student, Abt spent years living in environmentally conscious cities, and he’s brought that ethos into his company. Besides Styrofoam, the company’s recycling policies keep 4.3 million pounds of cardboard and paper, 32 million pounds of appliances, and 1.4 million pounds of electronics out of landfills every year.

As a result of its commitment to the environment, this retail giant’s once daily trash pick-up is just like any individual’s — weekly. And thanks to efforts like Reduce Waste Chicago, individual residents can make that commitment, too.