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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/1/11

Mary Allen and Northern Cook County's Award-Winning Recycling Program

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My guest today is Mary Allen, Recycling and Education Director of SWANCC [Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County]. Welcome to OpEdNews, Mary. The day I finished reading No Impact Man, your newsletter arrived in my mailbox. How fortuitous! Can you please tell our readers about some of the programs available to residents of Northern Cook County?

Since 1988, the mission of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County [IL] is to provide an environmentally safe and cost-effective plan to manage solid waste with a focus on reducing the volume and toxicity through responsible waste reduction solutions.  The Agency's 23 member communities provide drop-off locations for the following materials regarding Agency-sponsored programs:

Athletic Shoes
Batteries -- alkaline and rechargeable
Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
Document Destruction Events
Holiday Lights
Mercury Thermometer
Prescription Drugs and Sharps

The drop-off locations, times and other details can be accessed at .  

The Agency also provides programs to schools that are located in member communities, that include:

Certificate of Participation
Eco-Friendly Fashion Show
Media, books and Teaching Tools for Loan
Presentations -- all levels
Resources - Curriculum
School Grants

I had no idea that this program is so well-developed, Mary. It's been flying totally under my radar! How has SWANCC evolved since 1988? I don't imagine it started out with all these participating communities or programs. Tell us more, please.

In the late '80s and early '90s, curbside recycling was just getting started in SWANCC communities.  Barrington was the first in 1986 to implement a curbside recycling program.  Each community had a designated "recycling coordinator" to help implement the program and get the word out to residents.  SWANCC staff was instrumental in hosting workshops and seminars for these professionals to educate and enlighten them about the technology being used to collect, sort and process recyclables.  Additionally, markets were solidifying and manufacturers gearing up to used post-consumer recycled materials in new products.  The Agency has always been about "Closing the Loop" by providing examples of recycled-content products in displays that can be borrowed and the Eco-Friendly Fashion Show.

I was hired in 1995 to provide outreach to schools in the SWANCC region.  Each year, a workshop is held in September for environmental committee representatives, club sponsors and miscellaneous educators, where I provide an overview of the Agency's programs and resource materials, as well as information from other industry and government programs.  From 1995 to 2000, over 80 schools received a SWANCC Earth Flag for waste reduction efforts, and in subsequent years, an Earth Flag Extension Plaque with year bars.  Currently, school representatives can fill out a form indicating their waste reduction efforts and a customized certificate is mailed to them, encased in a recycled-content frame -- suitable to hanging in a common area of the school.  
Each fall, qualifying schools can receive grant funds from SWANCC to purchase waste reduction equipment, such as recycling bins, waste-free lunch bags, food containers, coffee mugs for teachers, dry erase boards and worm composting bins.  SWANCC provides a newsletter to administrators, teachers and PTA volunteers to kept them abreast of the many opportunities.  This newsletter is now sent electronically and is called -- Elist for Educators.  Brief blurbs are sent out weekly as opposed to a lengthy newsletter that used to be mailed out on a quarterly basis.  To support teachers' effort to teach about environmental issues, SWANCC has a list of books, media and curricula teachers can borrow to supplement lesson plans that are in accordance with the Illinois School Board of Education's Learning Standards.  All resources are posted at .

Once residential curbside recycling was nailed down in the late '90s, SWANCC's community programs began for materials that could either be reused, recycled or should be disposed of in an environmentally-safe manner, due to containing hazardous materials.  The first two special collections I implemented in 1999 were for electronics and athletic shoes.  The collected electronics are demanufactured by Supply-Chain Services in Lombard and then recycled.  The athletic shoes are transported to Nike's Reuse-a-Shoe warehouse and made into new sport courts and playing surfaces.  The other materials mentioned in the previous email followed suit from 2005 to date.  Each year, I try to implement a new program initiative.

Staff strives to stay on the cutting-edge with new programs and opportunities for its member municipalities and schools, making programs sustainable and easy to use or to participate in.  On behalf of the Agency, I have received the following national and state awards:


2011 -- Finalist, Green City Award , for Outstanding Community & Education Programs, Waste & Recycling News and Republic Services

2008 - Outstanding Government Recycling Programs, the Illinois Recycling Association

2002 - Excellence in School Curriculum Award, the National Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)

1999 - Outstanding Recycling Education Program Award, the Illinois Recycling Association

That must be so satisfying, Mary, for you personally and for SWANCC.  I love the idea of used sneakers ending up as playing surfaces!  I imagine that getting into the schools has the potential to pay big dividends, because you can affect whole families through their children. Have you found that to be the case?

Prior to joining SWANCC  in 1995, I was teaching science at a school in Park Ridge.  Educating our youth about the benefits of being good stewards of the environment is key to changing the tide of the damage we have done to our world.  They can be the educators and advocates to generations that have not grown up with recycling technologies.  For instance, when my children were young and their father would throw his beer can in the garbage, they would scold him and tell him to put it in the recycling bin.  I just smiled.

Our environment has many individual components -- air, water, land, animals, plants, solid waste, etc., but they overlap with each other.  The demise of one impacts all the rest.  Making an early connection of being responsible and respectful are key concepts to nurturing our environment and our communities, which will have positive results on our society.  When many individual efforts go towards a common goal, great things will abound.

Agreed! You mentioned that every year, you try to implement a new program initiative. What was it this year?

For 2011, it was the Battery Recycling Program.  The Agency has partnered with Interstate Batteries in Skokie to provide the recycling at no cost to residents in SWANCC communities, as a corporate product stewardship initiative.  Common household batteries are no longer accepted at Illinois EPA-sponsored household chemical waste events and facilities due to their benign nature and high recycling costs.  On the other hand, rechargeable batteries contain heavy metals which pose a threat to our environment, and have a marketable recyclability.  

Good to know. What's on your wish list for the future, Mary?

Near future goals include seeing the commercial infrastructure established to collect and compost organics (food scraps) with landscape waste from Illinois schools, businesses and institutions.  As for residents, I would like to see more active backyard composting, so that people can reduce their waste and utilize their own compost for gardening or natural landscaping projects.

Regarding composting, I've been doing it since last summer, conscientiously tossing my scraps (and those of friends and neighbors) in there.  But I'm embarrassed to say that I'm not really sure what to do after that.  Do you or will you have a tutorial for beginning composters?

Last fall, I co-authored a resource for the Illinois Recycling Association called "Recycling Works -- A Tool Kit for Reducing Waste in the Workplace" .  Please see the attached file for this document that can be downloaded at for free.  Note in Section Three, pages 17 to 23, there are tips on composting, both outdoors and indoors with worms.  Hopefully this will shed some light on the Dos and Don'ts of backyard composting.

Thanks, Mary. I'll be sure to check it out. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

Joan, I would like to end by asking your readers to take inventory of their consumption practices, and make a pledge to do something more each day to reduce waste and conserve resources, as well as educate themselves about safer household, person care and lawn care products.  Additionally, I would like to challenge them to get involved in local and state matters related to funds being taken away from protecting current environmental policies and undoing laws.  Let's choose to be on the team that stands for long-term solutions for a healthier and sustainable future.

I attached the PDF of SWANCC's Eco-Cleaning Guide and Eco-Friendly Marketplace full of safer alternatives and tons of resources that are available at

Thank you for your interest in what I do for SWANCC and the many programs and resources provided to enlighten residents, businesses and schools in SWANCC member communities.

A challenge! What are these pictures, Mary? 

photo credit: Joe Noel

Me as the MC of SWANCC's Trashy Fashion Show. The silver gown is made from over 7,000 pop tabs and the black and yellow gown is made from used caution tape from a SWANCC/Motorola electronics recycling event and employee paycheck mailers (plastic).  The gowns were made by my co-worker Elizabeth Start. 

photo credit: Joe Noel

All of SWANCC's programs and resource materials can be found at .  Other links pertaining to information mentioned include:
Great photos, Mary; I can see you really got into it! Thanks so much for talking with me and sharing what SWANCC does. Maybe it will catch on in other communities that haven't yet adopted these programs.

SWANCC's website


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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