“Here’s the bad stuff,” says Mike Finn. He stands next to a table straight out of someone’s messy office and holds up the offenders one by one. Yesterday’s Tribune: “Newspaper reduces the value of the fiber.” The residue of a day’s mail: “The windows in envelopes and the non-water-soluble glue are problems in the pulping process.” A battered report in a brown plastic cover. A file folder with a label pasted on its tab. A small box. “Rubber bands . . . and the real sin is carbon paper.”

These are tailings, the rest is ore. Finn is speaking in the heart of one of the great paper mines of the Loop: the State of Illinois Center (SOIC) at Randolph, Lake, LaSalle, and Clark, with an estimated potential yield of 5,000 pounds per week. He’s teaching his audience–about three dozen employees of the state Human Rights Commission, Auditor General’s Office, and Department of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse–how to separate recyclable paper from less valuable (or actually destructive) items. The richest vein of paper, he says, is computer paper–“either the 8 1/2-by-11 laser print or the green-bar larger size”–as well as the now virtually obsolete data tabulating cards. (Where possible, in fact, Finn arranges to collect this high-value stuff separately.) Next best is white bond paper, then colored bond.

Last year, the General Assembly passed the Solid Waste Management Act, prodding state agencies to start recycling office wastes. SOIC and another state building in Springfield are the pilot projects; the company of which Finn is vice president, Recycling Services, Inc., won the contract to devise a workable system to recover the reusable fraction of used paper (about half, on average).

“There are about 45 salvage companies in Chicago,” he explains after the meeting. “Every one of them will buy your paper if you once get it down to the loading dock. But we’re the only company that will come in, survey your operation, tell you if a recycling program is worthwhile, set it up, educate the employees, and pick up and buy the paper.” Recycling Services runs paper-recycling programs at the University of Illinois and DeVry Institute of Technology, as well as three Chicago “buy-back stations” for all manner of reusables.

It costs between $5 and $8 to throw away a cubic yard of paper in Chicago; the same amount of “postconsumer colored ledger” (the state’s mix, if everyone sorts properly) will sell for roughly that amount in bulk quantities to paper mills. Nevertheless, according to spokesman Pat Foley of the state Department of Central Management Services, which runs SOIC, paper recycling is neither saving nor earning much money for the state. The benefits are less visible and longer-run: it saves landfill space, saves energy (it’s much easier to make new paper from old paper than from virgin wood fiber), and saves trees. Finn is not sure, though, how many memos make one tree: “I know that with newspaper,” a much lower-value commodity than the state’s stuff, “a three-foot stack is supposed to equal one tree.”

The Loop may contain a paper lode, but it is almost as hard to mine as North Sea oil. One hitch is physical: “The trucking problems are terrible.” (At least SOIC has a giant “lazy Susan” in its subbasement to rotate trucks so they are pointed in the right direction without needing premium space for backing and filling.) Another is institutional: “There are very few one-tenant buildings,” and thus very few where the building management is in a position to suggest, let alone impose, a recycling program for the whole building–or provide premium space to store wastepaper.

And not all one-tenant buildings are as amenable as SOIC has so far been. Consider its neighbor across Randolph Street: Finn says he has had a proposal to recycle office paper in City Hall pending for four years–since before he and co-owner David Levinson founded Recycling Services, in fact.

Not that recycling is hard to sell to ordinary people, says Finn, who started in the business as a student canvasser in De Kalb for Citizens for a Better Environment. “What’s impressed me is that people inherently don’t want to waste things. The key is providing them with a convenient system, which we do. We believe recycling is really the best form of disposal, but our job is to offer a service and not just an idea.”

The service he offers SOIC is deceptively simple. Every employee gets an extra wastebasket (or wastebasket equivalent) for recyclable paper. Finn calls it a “desk-side container,” but you would recognize it as a foot-square cardboard box with a prominent green-on-white logo: “ISORT” (Illinois State Office Recycling Team), with the “O” enlarged to enclose a monklike figure dropping folding sheets of paper into a box. Finn has dispensed about 1,200 boxes to not quite half the SOIC workers, and explained to them, group by group, which stuff goes in and which doesn’t.

Every night the SOIC janitors haul the paper down to big plastic tubs in the subbasement; each is one cubic yard and holds about 500 pounds. Every week the Recycling Services truck comes in and picks up about five containers full. Before, they would have gone to the dump. Now, they go to 4800 S. Morgan, where Recycling Services workers bale and ready them for shipment to Fort Howard Paper Company in Green Bay–“the largest user of secondary fiber in the world,” says Finn. Here Illinois’ leftover letters, press releases, interoffice memoranda, computer printouts, reports, analyses, notes, rulings, and gubernatorial proclamations will first be “pulped” in a water bath and then transformed–perhaps not so drastically–into toilet paper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.