brick city hall building exterior

Highland Park, Illinois, is a quiet suburb located north of Chicago. The city boasts a 40 percent recycling rate among residents and 70 percent for businesses, well above the national average of 34.7 percent.

Hayley Garard, assistant to the city manager, spoke with Earth911 about Highland Park’s recycling program, how it achieved good results, and its plans for the future.

How Does the City Collect Recycling Data?

“We work with a company called Lakeshore Recycling Services (LRS) that provides us with [data about our] recycling rate by weight and volume,” Garard said. Each of the city’s recycling trucks carries sensors on board that measure material collected, adding up individual pickups to get a daily total.

Importantly for any recycling initiative, the city has a reliable way of measuring how much of their waste is getting recycled. You might’ve heard the phrase, “you can’t change what you don’t measure.” This is true whether it’s applied to a city or to your own personal waste stream.

What Makes a Recycling Program Successful?

“Education and outreach are key, along with providing the means,” Garard said. “Free recycling is a wonderful start, but you need to educate residents and get them involved in the process.”

Located only about a mile outside of the city center, Highland Park’s recycling center offers 24/7 drop-off bins for recycling items such as textiles, electronics, and fluorescent light bulbs. Additionally, Highland Park provides a curbside recycling service with weekly pickups of common household recyclables including paper, cardboard, and plastic. The service also includes monthly pickups of small electronics for free.

Garard explained that providing residents with access to services alone isn’t enough to guarantee participation, so the city is making plans to increase its efforts to educate residents about their available services.

“The city was an early leader in making curbside composting available to residents, but without a strong promotional campaign, households and businesses have been slow to participate,” she explained. “The city will coordinate with LRS to promote composting through printed recycling bin hangers and flyers distributed with invoices to all LRS customers within the city.”

Goals for the Future?

Surprisingly, local property owners aren’t taking advantage of the free recycling service the city provides. Reaching out to them and their tenants is a key part of Highland Park’s strategy to increase participation. Having improved access to recycling squared away, the city is focusing on increasing awareness and participation rates.

There is room to expand participation in residential and commercial recycling and composting,” Gerard said. “The goals address municipal operations, residents, and businesses, and consider how to engage commercial units even though recycling is not mandated for these building types.”

The city also hopes that more people will take advantage of recycling services at events held within the city. For example, Food Truck Thursday is a weekly event that generates a lot of disposable containers and food waste.

Gerard explained that the city hopes to “increase the effectiveness of recycling at events by enabling composting and engaging volunteer guides and container monitors.”

How Involved Are the Citizens?

Gerard related that the residents of Highland Park are very involved in the city’s recycling efforts. They keep the city honest, checking on services that are not delivered on time or with care. This feedback is critical to expanding awareness about city programs, because neighbors tell one another about recycling success and failures. Building on the enthusiasm the community has for environmental initiatives is a key part of the future success of the program.

“Residents call in with opportunities, concerns, questions, and challenges,” said Gerard. “If a truck accidentally mixed up their recycling with their trash, they aren’t shy about letting someone know about it.”

A Resident’s Perspective

Elva Arend, a Highland Park resident, said that she has thought often about Highland Park’s recycling efforts and why she chooses to recycle.

Arend said that when she recycles, she thinks about the future she’s leaving for her children and can’t shake the mental image of a world overflowing with trash. She appreciates the city’s efforts to make recycling a priority. Simple offerings like bigger recycling containers and an option for curbside composting have made it much easier for her to recycle in Highland Park than when she lived in Chicago.

Of course, recycling in Highland Park isn’t perfect. She wishes it was easier to information about what she can and can’t recycle from the city and local schools would do more to teach children how to recycle.

Still, she’s grateful to live a city that’s making the effort to reduce the negative impact it has on the world.

How happy are you with your city’s recycling efforts? Do you have some best practices to share? Start a conversation!


By Jayson Arend

Jayson Arend has a bachelor's degree in environmental science and business with an interest in exploring how a thriving society and the environment can coexist.