We define waste as any unwanted byproduct of human activity. This includes everything that might get picked up by curbside services like landfill waste, recycling, and composting, as well as larger items that need to be dropped off at collection facilities like old refrigerators, furniture, or construction materials. Depending on what services you choose to utilize for waste management, it can either be 1) sent to the landfill, 2) recycled, or 3) composted. Landfill and recycling services are pretty common and affordable across cities whereas composting services tend to be smaller and come at additional cost.

What happens to landfill waste?

Landfills used to be open dump sites for residential and municipal waste where toxic byproducts could easily contaminate water sources and the soil, leading to both environmental and health hazards to nearby neighborhoods. However, in 1990 the EPA tightened the regulations surrounding landfill management. Now, most landfills are ‘sanitary landfills’ that separate the waste from the surrounding environment through layers of protective material such as clay and high-density plastics, filtration systems for water runoff, and gas collectors that capture the methane and carbon dioxide by-products of decomposing waste. The water is then sent off to treatment plants and the collected methane is used to generate electricity.

While modern landfills cause less environmental damage than their older ‘open dump’ counterparts, they are still less efficient than composting and recycling and should be considered a last resort for waste. The CIty of Chicago’s 2009 Waste Characterization study reported that ~35% of the city’s waste stream was made of recyclable materials such as paper, plastic, glass, and beverage containers, while another 29% was made of organic material. Diverting these products from the landfill to recycling or composting facilities is a more efficient use of these materials and also maximizes landfill real estate for true waste materials. Moreover, the engineering of sanitary landfills does not isolate landfills from the environment forever. The layers of clay and plastic that separate the landfill from the ground can deteriorate over time, allowing for decomposition byproducts to leak into and contaminate the soil. Gas that is collected also has a highly varied chemical composition and often needs to be processed before it can be converted to energy.

The City of Chicago currently sends waste to one of four sanitary landfills, two of which are in Indiana. Currently, the 550-acre Livingston landfill in Illinois is projected to reach maximum capacity in as little as 20 years.


Recycling provides an opportunity for used items to be repurposed or remade into a new product, rather than generating new products from virgin material. Resources such as the trees that are made into paper products or fossil fuel byproducts that are processed into plastics are not infinite. When paper, plastic, glass, or aluminum waste is sent to the landfill rather than recycled, this removes the raw components from the total amount of paper, plastic, glass, or metal that is currently in use even though these items could be recycled to prevent the need to constantly source virgin material. While it might be hard to imagine the impact of recycling papers or plastics compared to cutting down new trees or processing crude oil into plastic, the early glass industry provides one such example that hits close to home. In the early 1900s, Muncie’s Ball Corporation, the iconic mason jar company, sourced its blue glass from sand from the Hoosier Slide in the Indiana Dunes. As a result, the formerly 200-foot tall dune was completely emptied of sand and the land has been occupied by NIPSCO’s Michigan City coal-powered power plant for the last 100 years. While nothing can be done about the loss of that local landmark today, recycling used glass products acts as a way to keep glass in the system rather than throwing it out and necessitating the need for increased glass production and continued mining of sand dunes.

When recyclable items like plastic or glass are sent to landfill, they can take anywhere from 100 to 1 billion years to breakdown. Moreover, rather than breaking down completely, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastic, which can make their way into water and soil. Microplastic contamination is a growing issue— 81% of water samples taken all over the world contained microplastic. They have been found in foods such as fish, beer, milk, and salt. When plastics are disposed of as litter into the surrounding environment, they can also make their way into waterways or other ecosystems where they can be ingested by local wildlife.

Recycling not only has positive impacts on the environment, it has positive effects on the economy as well. In 2007 domestic recycling industry generated 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages, and $6.7 billion in tax revenues. The global recycling market is slated to increase in value from $31.5 billion from 2015 to $56.8 billion by 2024, as demand for recycled plastic grows from industries such as packaging and construction as a result of pressure to adopt more environmentally-friendly measures.

The Recycling Process

The recycling process differs for various types of material.

What can your business do?

Having recycling bins in the front and back so both staff and customers have easy access is good practice. If you notice that recycling isn’t being sorted correctly, putting up signs with guidelines on what can and cannot be recycled can help clear confusion. Here is a sample of a recycling sign (link sign) specifically aimed at cafes developed by PSI. In Chicago, specifically, plastics #1-5 and #7 are recyclable while plastic #6 is not. #6 plastics are usually found in styrofoam and some plastic yogurt cups. #3 plastics are typically found in plastic bags and cannot be recycled in curbside recycling; check your local grocery or pharmacy to see if they have special plastic bag collections. For a guide on what can be recycled in Chicago, click here.