Small Town Recycling

When I was a kid growing up out here on the prairie, one of the more challenging things to deal with, depending upon your point of view, was your garbage. I say "depending upon your point of view", because in many cases the answer arrived at was simple:


In the days of my youth there was an enduring tradition of simply taking one’s household refuse out to the designated spot and lighting it aflame. Everyone that I knew who lived out here had a "burn barrel" - often a cast off steel barrel that had previously held something like motor oil. These were, themselves, durable but not everlasting items that periodically had to be replaced. You learn pretty early from this experience that almost anything will burn - or at least "go away" - if things get hot enough. To this day I can still differentiate the smell of burning garbage from other smokey smells.

This is an enduring problem, and in earlier times it was an issue dealt with by burying things in addition to burning them. Sometimes this was in a place dug specific to that purpose, and sometimes it was a secondary use of the otherwise objectionable space beneath an outhouse. Indeed there are people who make a hobby and/or career of privy digging to extract the now precious items that prior generations valued so much they tossed them into their toilets.

Fortunately, these are largely concerns of the past - garbage collection services are available even out here on the prairie, and as such, we no longer have to throw our trash in our toilets or risk conflagration to dispose of it. But what is not offered out our way is any type of recycling services. Rather, all of the refuse simply goes into one large bin to be taken away once each week.

Whether or not recycling is of benefit is actually a question surrounded by some controversy. Most of us have heard of situations where the collection company actually takes the collected recycleables and simply dumps them into the landfill with the rest of the trash, particularly at times when the materials simply don’t carry much value. But at the very least it feels better to sort out the things that can be recycled rather than simply throwing them out. As such, we’ve looked for recycling options in our area, but mostly come up empty.

Mostly. The exceptions are for metals, particularly aluminum.

What does this mean for the rural lifestyle? It primarily means that, if something can be purchased in an aluminum container, that’s how we get it.

This actually represents an odd change of pace for those of us in the household who may have predilections towards beer snobbery (speaking here for a friend, of course). After a couple of decades of having convinced oneself that distribution in glass is the preferable medium for any ale or lager, one now finds oneself disappointed when a favorite beer is not available in a can. And there are other items - sodas, of course, and the oddly addicting LaCroix family of products - which can also be obtained wrapped in aluminum.

So nowadays we have a pattern of collecting the cans and engaging in periodic crushing sessions. When we’ve gathered what seems a sufficient volume we take them in to Buckman Iron & Metal Co. Sufficient volume is usually somewhere between five and seven 30-gallon bags.

Cans on their way in

The upside to all of this, particularly as compared to having recycling collected at the road, is that it does actually result in getting some cash back. Now, if one is hoping to generate a personal fortune through this means, one will be disappointed. My most recent trip in, with seven bags more or less full, come out to a weight of 46lbs. Aluminum was running at a price of $0.45/lb, which meant that I walked away with a whopping $20.70.

Not a princely sum, to be sure, but certainly more than I would have garnered if I’d simply thrown them away. Better, as my mother would say, than a stick in the eye.

The other benefit to this is primarily for the twelve-year old boy in me that finds it pretty cool to see the machines at work. On this last trip in, for example, I was waiting behind another customer who had brought in the remains of a Ford Taurus on a truck. This meant I got to enjoy the show involving getting the car off of the flatbed with a forklift. This was a delicate balancing act, to be sure, but one that neverless did not involve the car falling off of the forklift. If you’ve ever watched someone operate one of these things and thought "that’s no big deal", I think seeing one in action this way would get you to reconsider the error of your ways.

stacks of cans pressed

And you also get to see the results of your efforts, as well as that of others. Here I’m referring to the blocks of pressed aluminum that is produced at the far end of the machine that processes your cans. These ultimately join other blocks lined up on pallets (pictured above borrowed from DoRecycling ) that make it clear that what you’ve brought in will be taken out to be used again, which at least feels like you are doing something useful in the long run. And you are, as recycling aluminum reportedly works better than mining in both from a cost and environmental perspective.

Drive Through Country

There is a lot to be said for country life - much of what I have to say about it is chronicled here. The open spaces, the room between one's self and one's neighbors offers a sense of separation, of privacy that cannot be easily found in the city. The connection with nature is enhanced by this solitude.

As wonderful as this is, that sense of solitude clearly can mean something else to people who are passing through it rather than living in it. For some it presents an emptiness that must be endured in order to move from one actual destination to another - drive through country, if you will. For others it reflects an area where one can do things unobserved, undetected.

Infamously, the empty areas of the Midwest can hide meth houses and similar objectionable sites. But while the media presents this sort of thing as if it's rampant, actual sightings of these are relatively rare. What is more common is the use of our countryside as a dumping ground for things one is, apparently, unsure of how to otherwise throw away.

This isn't a new phenomenon - I can recall variations on this theme going back to childhood. But the thing I see more recently, and which is a bit more striking than a bag of beer cans, for example, is this:

TV in the Ditch

Another TV in the Ditch

These pictures reflect two different, large CRT televisions sitting in the ditch, just a couple of miles apart:

TV's on Henkel Road

This road isn't unpopulated - there are several houses within relatively close proximity of both of them. But it has the distinction of being just off of a fairly major thoroughfare - US RT 52 - which one suspects offers just enough access, and just enough privacy, that one feels one can dump them without being noticed.

And dump is the operative term here. Anyone who has ever had to pick up and move a large CRT television knows these now-outdated devices are anything but light. This is a factor, as much as anything else, in why they've been replaced flat screen TV's. All of which is to say: these didn't just fall off of someone's truck. They aren't sitting, smashed, at the side of the road. They are out in the ditch. One of the two - in the second picture - is so far into the ditch that it's nearly to the field. It is also accompanied by a second, unwanted item that appears to be a microwave.

I'd like to say that this was striking enough to take a picture of because I've never seen such a thing before. Unfortunately, that's not the case - I've seen this same sight multiple times over the time that we've been out here - large, tube televisions tossed in the ditch. I suspect this occurs in part because disposal of old TV's is becoming more and more challenging. It also comes to mind because we have our own departed TV to dispose of.

The state of Illinois does maintain a list of electronic devices and materials that must be recycled rather than sent to a landfill, as well as a list of organizations and business that will recycle electronic devices and materials. This looks pretty hopeful when you see that Wal-Mart is at the top of the list - after all, they are everywhere. However, the big-box giant's website indicates that they only accept smartphones and tablets, along with a short list of other devices, none of which are televisions.

Staples offers a laudably longer list, but limits its program to items that could be considered office equipment, such as monitors and printers. Goodwill will accept a number of electronic items, but any mention of televisions is carefully absent from their site. The Salvation Army is listed as a recycler as well, but specifics about this are either not listed, or well hidden, on their site. A regional site - Stockpiled Electronics Recycling appears on a search with a Facebook page as their business site (folks, Facebook should never be your primary business site... but I digress), but it was posted in 2013, and the number to call is a scam line to sell you a Caribbean cruise.

So it's extremely challenging to find a home for that old TV. With all of those negatives, I did find this positive:

Best Buy will recycle a lot of electronics for free, and will recycle your television for a $25 fee. Best Buy is not a company I particularly love, and stores are few and far between in this region, with the nearest examples requiring an hour or so in the car or truck. Still, the company deserves kudos for stepping up here where others will not, and driving a bit to allow for proper disposal is far better than being a waste of human biomass who dumps his TV in the ditch.