Illinois Community Takes Trash Seriously


LIKE most Naperville residents these days Jennice Chee is into recycling in a big way. ``I've told the kids, `We're doing this for you,''' she says.

On this particular day she and her son have driven to the Naperville Area Recycling Center (NARC) to turn in two aluminum screen doors under the center's buy-back program. Mrs. Chee and her family also routinely store recyclable materials in their garage for NARC's biweekly curb-side pickup.

Nationally about 10 percent of the 160 million tons of garbage Americans throw away each year is recycled. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 600 US communities have curb-side recycling programs.

Naperville, a fast-growing community of 80,000 just west of Chicago, has one of the nation's most successful and comprehensive programs. Its recycling center offers drop-off, buy-back, and curb-side pickup services of 10 materials, rather than the usual three or four. It also has a high 73 percent citizen participation rate.

In a typical successful curb-side recycling program, residents are given containers into which they can dump all materials together. NARC supplies none. It asks citizens to separate each of the 10 materials collected, leaving a polite but firm note if the rule isn't followed. ``They've really got people trained,'' says Kevin Greene of the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment.

Still NARC, which has doubled its tonnage take over each of the last five years, pulls in almost one-third more pounds per participant than the usual curb-side program. In a companion effort, Naperville city workers have long collected leaves and brush for composting and last summer tried a pilot grass collection program. Together the city and NARC have already achieved the 25 percent cut in the waste stream that the state of Illinois recently mandated for every county and community by 1996.

``We're well on our way to the 50 percent mark,'' says Anne Aitchison, NARC's enthusiastic executive director. That cut in two years is the city's goal.

The public-private partnership between nonprofit NARC is a close one that has long had a strong grass-roots component. When Naperville's first recycling effort of 1970 suddenly closed in 1979 a few Naperville residents protested loudly at City Hall.

The mayor and city council asked Mrs. Aitchison, then president of the local League of Women Voters, if her group would take on the job. The league agreed try to form a civic task force.

Eight groups, from the local women's club to the Kiwanis Club, started NARC in 1979. It began primarily as a drop-off center, staffed by rotating teams of volunteers. By 1982 a group of women from one of the city's active subdivisions - each has its own homeowners' association and newsletter - asked Aitchison if they could drive around to collect materials from their neighbors and drop them off at NARC. Another association followed suit. Their success led NARC to try its own experiment and eventually persuade city officials to adopt the program on a citywide basis.

Now eight NARC trucks, some of them makeshift, stop by each of Naperville's 24,000 homes twice a month. They also collect paper from office buildings and glass from local bars and restaurants.

One of the most striking aspects of the Naperville program is the degree of community involvement. The Naperville Sun buys much of its paper from a nearby mill which for nine years has bought newspapers from NARC. One Naperville resident put 63 boxes of used computer paper one day at his curb and was the first in town to contribute one ton of paper.

NARC's original coalition of churches and civic groups has now grown to 14. Homeowner groups vie with one another for the best participation record. ``Our residents are well educated and I think they realize the importance of what we're leaving behind us on this earth,'' says Naperville Mayor Margaret Price. ``Without their commitment this wouldn't work.''

Marcia Schoonaert, a former fourth-grade teacher who is NARC's education director, visits schools with her bag of recyclable samples. Her message: each person handling a product has a choice. The item can be put out for recycling where it may get reused or tossed in the garbage where it will likely lie forever buried in a landfill. She notices that often the neighborhood recycling catch improves after one of her school visits.

Aitchison, a flutist who plays with a small professional orchestra in her ``other life,'' says NARC's success is due in large part to the city's decision a decade ago to lease the group an acre of land and to provide some $300,000 in no-interest loans. ``Without that help we couldn't possibly have done this,'' she says.

Insisting that ``hustling dollars'' is a big part of her job, she has also actively pursued grants for such on-site equipment as balers and granulators. Donations such as the recycled truck scale used to weigh NARC's 25-to-30 ton daily take also help. And not all those curb-side throwaways go directly into the recycling stream. A used refrigerator, microwave oven, chairs, and plastic cups that Aitchison says will ``last longer than the pyramids'' give the NARC employee lounge trailer a homey look.

Recycling costs money and a number of centers have not been able to make ends meet. NARC has managed with careful economic planning with the city to stay in business. It has already paid back one-third of its city loans.

The center is paid by the city to collect materials and keeps what it earns from their sale after processing. In a unique twist, the firm that hauls the city's garbage by contract must pay the city $35 in avoided costs for each ton NARC collects at the curb in recyclables. For Naperville, it's a formula that works.

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