Recycling cans and other goods isn’t too difficult if you live in or near a city. All you have to do is put your recyclables on the curb every week or two. But for the 60 million Americans who live in rural communities, it’s a much harder undertaking.
Curbside recycling, so common in metropolitan areas, often doesn’t exist in rural America because it’s just too hard for companies to turn a profit from picking up cans, newspapers and other goods from low-population areas where houses are far apart. For example, 75 of the 102 counties in Illinois have fewer than 40 people per square mile. Some homes in these areas are 10 or more miles apart, according to Waste 360, a professional organization.
Nationwide, just 40 percent of rural residents have curbside recycling, compared with nearly 70 percent of people living in urban and suburban communities, according to the Pew Research Center.
When materials that could be recycled aren’t, they usually end up landfills or in burn barrels. One private waste hauler in Wisconsin told Waste 360 that in the 1990s, he estimated as much as 75 percent of rural residential waste was burned.
Fortunately, over the last two decades, rural communities have found inventive ways to make recycling easier.
Some 7,000 communities in the U.S. designate specific places to serve as “transfer” or “drop-off” stations for trash and recyclables. These locations operate under “pay-as-you-throw”(PAYT) programs. Residents are charged for the collection of trash based on the amount they throw away, boosting the incentive to recycle.
Jan Ameen, executive director of the Franklin County Solid Waste District in Massachusetts, oversees 17 such stations that serve 22 rural communities. Residents pay $2 for each bag of trash they throw away. Those who don’t use transfer stations must pay private haulers. Their fees vary by location and company but, according to Ameen, they are significantly more than $2 per bag.
And while drop-off locations offer recycling for free, private haulers usually don’t offer recycling, even for those willing to pay.
Rural Americans reap economic benefits for bringing their recyclables to the drop-off points. The revenue that’s made from recycling bottles, cans and paper goes back to the town. “We get paid $10 per ton,” Ameen says. “That money goes into a fund which goes to waste-reduction programs.”
Some transfer stations even allow schools or organizations like the Cub Scouts to leave out a box for recyclables with redemption value. The organization is then responsible for bringing these recyclables into a facility. They then keep the money.
Chartering a plane to fly out recyclables
For most rural areas, PAYT programs and free recycling drop-off locations work just fine. But some communities have taken even more extreme measures, largely because they are so remote.
The village of Igiugig is one of the smallest communities in Alaska, with only 69 residents. The area does generate substantial waste, however, from the many tourist lodges in the area.
Recycling is a challenge due to the town’s distance from any major hubs. But last year, Igiugig won a major Alaskan Recycling award, stemming from programs founded in the 1980s. And, in 2015, the village secured funding from a nonprofit agency and the government to fly 800 pounds of crushed cans on a donated plane to a recycling facility in Anchorage. Last year, it flew out 55,000 pounds of scrap metal.
Residents don’t stop at metal. All yard and vegetable waste is composted for use in the community greenhouse. Community-raised chickens eat leftover food scraps. The village crushes glass and mixes it into road foundation.
These extreme recycling measures are good for the environment, but they have clear financial benefits, as well. “It would really fill up our landfill if we were to bury all that material,” Stacy Hill, the environmental director for the village told Alaska Public Media. “It’s about $3 million to $5 million to produce another landfill of our size, and nobody has $3 million to $5 million to replace what we’ve got now.”