“It’s a classic example of the public will being thwarted” by intransigent business interests, says Howard Learner of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI). More likely, say others, it’s a classic example of environmentalists not being able to tell when they’ve won.

For almost a year now some of Illinois’ leading environmentalists, businesspeople, and state and local government officials have been meeting quietly, trying to cut a deal on garbage. The business faction says there aren’t–or soon won’t be–enough landfills and incinerators in which to dump garbage; they want more built. The environmentalists reply that the shortage is just a symptom of the real problem, which is that we throw away too much stuff in the first place; they want garbage recycled instead of buried. The bureaucrats and lawmakers (and some in the first two groups) want to engineer a compromise that would accommodate both sides.

Together they’ve met in small groups and in large groups, weekly and then once a month. They’ve met in private; they’ve debated in public. They’ve had the assistance of a professional mediator and the interest of the governor and of house speaker Michael Madigan. They’ve seen Earth Day come and go.

They still don’t have a deal. But they may soon, as the process rolls toward a climax in the November session of the state legislature. Ironically, though, most of the leaders of the Illinois environmental movement have read themselves out of the negotiations, even though they provoked them in the first place.

For most of the time that Homo sapiens has had something to throw away, garbage has been a household matter, or at most a local one. The issue didn’t pop up in Illinois state politics until the late 1970s, when residents of the downstate coal-mining hamlet of Wilsonville and the farm town of Sheffield objected to having hazardous-waste landfills as neighbors. State officials and professionals in the field assured the locals that their landfills were quite safe–they would not leak and pollute the groundwater. Within a few years, of course, both of them did just that.

The problems with these landfills helped drill two lessons into the public mind: one, landfills leak sooner or later; two, experts who promise they won’t are probably wrong. And these lessons applied equally to dumps for kitchen garbage and “normal” solid waste–which are usually even less carefully located and designed than hazardous-waste dumps.

So people wanted less and less to live near any kind of landfill, and it became harder and harder for local governments and garbage companies to find sites for new ones. In 1981 the state legislature stepped in to help by passing what is still the cornerstone of Illinois’ solid-waste policy, “Senate Bill 172,” which regulated the location of “regional pollution control facilities”–mostly landfills and garbage incinerators. This law gave both local governments and the state EPA a say in whether a landfill could open up at a particular spot. (Cook County was exempted from the law.) It was intended to impose some order on the process of siting landfills, but in bringing local governments into the act it gave an edge to environmentalists of the not-in-my-backyard persuasion. Now it was even harder for industry to establish new landfills–and the stage was set for the current garbage “crisis.”

Through the 80s, a few extra, largely ineffective wrinkles were added to the state’s solid-waste policy. In 1986 the legislature adopted a “waste-management hierarchy”–actually a wish list of disposal choices, which stated that the best way to deal with garbage is to not throw it away in the first place (“volume reduction at the source”), the next best way is to reuse or recycle it, third best is to burn it for energy, fourth is to burn it so it will take up less landfill space, and the option of last resort is to bury it in a landfill. This law gave environmentalists a rallying cry (“Follow the hierarchy!”) but not much more: latest figures show that about 94 percent of Illinois garbage is still disposed of by the method of “last” resort. The “hierarchy” is not well understood: representatives of the solid-waste-disposal industry have been known to refer to incineration (priority three or four) as a form of waste reduction (priority one).

In 1988 and 1989 legislators required all counties, including Cook, to start developing plans for recycling at least 15 percent of their garbage in three years and 25 percent in five years. But these laws don’t seem to have given the counties enough incentive to stay on schedule. To date only one county (Lake) has proceeded at the pace it should; the others, according to Kevin Greene of Citizens for a Better Environment, have been planning slowly or without public participation, or have treated the 15 to 25 percent goals as ceilings rather than floors.

Finally, on January 10 of this year, in his “state of the state” speech, Governor James Thompson set a goal of cutting Illinois’ garbage burials in half by 2000. But this seemingly clear-cut pronouncement has turned out to be much murkier than it first appeared.

All of this adds up to a solid-waste policy that nobody likes very much. Industry leaders, for their part, are haunted by the possibility that someday soon, there will be nowhere to dump the garbage. William Uffelman, director of state-government affairs for the National Solid Waste Management Association, envisions an over-the-road equivalent of the Mobro 4000, the infamous New York garbage barge that could not find a place to unload. “We’re in the public-health business,” Uffelman frets. “If there are no sites, you can only park semis nose to tail on I-294 for so long.” He and his colleagues want to loosen the provisions of Senate Bill 172, to make it easier to build new landfills.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, want more than the law currently gives them, which is essentially the power to block new landfills. Dale Berry, spokesman for an environmental group called the McHenry County Defenders, says that Senate Bill 172 “is only a defense, not an offense.” Environmentalists know that it’s easier to mobilize people to fight a proposed landfill than it is to get them to separate paper, glass, aluminum, and compostables for reuse, day in and day out. And that it’s easier to get people to recycle than it is to assure a market for those recyclables that have been saved. So they want the state to set up a system that will make recycling more feasible.

Both sides were thus ready to deal when environmentalists brought the matter to a head, in the spring of 1989, by bombarding the Illinois General Assembly with 139 proposed state laws on solid waste–everything from bans on plastic bottles to required deposits on dry-cell batteries. The legislature ducked: it set up two task forces composed of interest-group representatives that were to report back to lawmakers in the spring of 1990. One, chaired by Sidney Marder of the state chamber of commerce, was to discuss landfill siting and recycling. The second, chaired by Karen Witter, director of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR), and staffed by her own employees, was to discuss waste reduction and recycling.

Neither task force reached the hoped-for consensus. To keep this story manageable, I’ll focus on the waste-reduction and recycling task force, which was somewhat more successful in that it came up with an intriguing market-driven framework for statewide recycling in Illinois. However, its members could not agree on how to pay for their plan, and then they positively fell apart over a seemingly small disagreement about recycling goals.

Your classic environmental problem has a familiar plot line: a few villainous polluters–Exxon, Dow Chemical, the U.S. Department of Energy–are (hopefully) thwarted by a large number of virtuous victims who get the government to tell the villains to cut it out. This is the script that Howard Learner of BPI had in mind when he sat down as a member of the waste-reduction and recycling task force: “A cheap, simple way to deal with this problem is bans.” No bad stuff in the landfills.

But this melodrama, in which the government can simply command a few polluters to stop, doesn’t apply very well to solid-waste issues. Almost everyone buys plastic Coke bottles and the like, and so almost everyone winds up playing both roles–villain and victim–at once. A ban would work fine if all the government had to do was police half a dozen big-time polluters. Policing 11 million small-time polluters is another matter altogether.

If Illinois were to ban, say, plastic bottles from landfills, two decidedly noncheap things would have to happen: One, the state would have to hire squadrons of “garbage police” to make sure nobody threw any out. Two, somebody would have to find something to do with the used plastic bottles, some way to recycle them for profit (or else at a subsidized loss). Without this “market development,” as Illinois DENR research and planning director Robert Lieberman points out, the effect of a landfill ban would be to relocate the problem, not solve it. There’s no point in legislating plastic bottles out of landfills unless they can be recycled. And if they can be recycled, then incentives will work much better than bans. If they can’t be recycled, then bans will just create little plastic-bottle landfills in everyone’s backyard, as people sneak out at night to bury their empties.

“All a ban does,” says Lieberman, “is either move the problem elsewhere or create a bureaucratic infrastructure–or both.” A ban on landfilling aluminum cans, which are readily recyclable, might work better. But it’s not usually considered good public policy to pass yet another unenforceable “paper law.” Like Prohibition or the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit, they tend to undermine respect for law in general.

So Lieberman and his colleague David Baker, working as staff for the waste-reduction and recycling task force, looked for some more sophisticated ways to put into practice the agenda of Howard Learner and his environmentalist colleagues. Their learning curve turned out to be pretty wobbly. They heard that Connecticut had proposed a tax on the volume of packaging, says Lieberman, “so we called Connecticut and asked how they were going to implement it. They didn’t know–their revenue department had gone crazy, saying it would require every checkout person in the state to know differential calculus. They said it had no chance of passing. They said to call Florida, that they had some kind of penalty there on packaging and newsprint if certain recycling targets were not met. So we asked Florida how they were implementing that.” They didn’t know either–they had three years to implement it, and the state merchants’ association had already taken the state to court over it.

Lieberman and Baker then called Jeanne Wirka, the author of a booklet called Wrapped in Plastic, which describes in detail the environmental case against plastic packaging. They asked her how she would translate the critique into workable legislative form. And she said, “I hadn’t thought about that.”

Eventually the waste-reduction and recycling task force, Learner included, did manage to agree on a workable framework. To meet the governor’s goal (“50 percent by 2000”) they decided the state should undertake simultaneously to increase the supply of recycled material and to stimulate the demand for it. (This balance, explains DENR director Witter, is necessary to avoid mistakes such as the one made a few years ago in Iowa, where for a time a bottle bill caused an accumulation of useless plastic bottles that eventually had to be landfilled.)

The task force decided that Illinois would require local governments to meet specific recycling and reduction goals–and would supply them with money to help them get started. Then the state would use the lure of this guaranteed supply, along with other economic incentives, to attract factories using recycled newsprint, aluminum, glass, or plastic to locate or expand in Illinois. Once the state primed the pump, the theory went, recycling would eventually proceed on its own, fueled solely by the profit motive. In other words, once government got it going, this system would work on the pull of profit–not the push of detailed state regulations. Other pieces of the plan complemented this framework: state and local governments would buy more recycled goods, the state would require a reduction of toxic substances in packaging, and the state would set up a logo program (to identify recyclable items on store shelves) if no equivalent federal program had come along by 1993. (Those on the task force like to call this framework “market driven,” and so it is by comparison with legislative bans or taxes. But a more truly market-driven system would extend to the individual household–as it does in northwest-suburban Woodstock, where you pay for garbage collection by the bag: the more garbage, the bigger your bill.)

“We came further in that task force than I initially thought possible,” says David Vite, executive director of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “I thought director Witter and her staff did an outstanding job. Had we been in the room by ourselves, it would not have been as productive.”

So far, so good–but the negotiators had trouble trying to put flesh on the skeleton. The environmentalists wanted as much recycling as possible as soon as possible. The local governments and businesses were agreeable–as long as they wouldn’t have to pay for it. So it’s not surprising that the major fights were over penalties, goals, and money.

The group soon found that its full strength of 35 was unwieldy and that most of the serious talking went on in a subgroup of eight, where Howard Learner and Kevin Greene represented environmentalists, David Vite and William Uffelman represented business, Timothy Harrington (deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department) and William Barron (assistant Lake County administrator) represented local governments, and Karen Witter and David Buckner (chief negotiator and deputy director of DENR, since departed for a job in the waste industry) represented state government.

This small group waded into the tough questions, while trying to keep their constituents and fellow caucus members up-to-date. One tangle was over what to do if a local government failed to meet the agreed-on recycling goals. Since it would be getting a carrot–state money for recycling programs–why not a stick, in the form of higher landfill fees for garbage coming from backsliders?

No way, says Tim Harrington, speaking for the city of Chicago. “We just don’t believe that penalties are an appropriate way for the state to relate to local government.” Nettled, DENR’s Karen Witter describes the city as “a major problem” and the only dissenter on this point. “We felt the goals we wound up with were reasonable and achievable. The city succeeded in modifying them so that they were achievable, and the city agreed to them. So I don’t see why penalties were seen as so onerous.”

Much more troublesome were the goals themselves. Sure, ultimately we want a 50 percent reduction in garbage buried, but at what pace? And from which starting point? Illinois landfills took in approximately 52 million cubic yards of garbage in 1987, 51 million in 1988, and 46 million in 1989. But these figures come from the same dubious industry sources as the ones on landfill capacity (see sidebar: “Crisis? What Crisis?”), and so they conceal a multitude of sins, including ignorance. According to Lieberman and Baker, even if the sharp decline from 1988 to 1989 is a reliable figure, the drop didn’t occur because Illinoisans got the recycling religion–but rather because a major downstate landfill closed, causing the state to import less Missouri garbage, and because out-of-state exports from the Chicago area increased.

Worse yet for the goal setters, we have very little notion of what’s in this waste stream. (Leading U.S. garbologist William Rathje writes, “At present we have more reliable information about Neptune than we do about this country’s solid waste stream.”) Lieberman and Baker say the best guess is that only about half of it is stuff we now know how to recycle.

Yard waste is another wild card. It makes up somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the totals, and it was banned from Illinois landfills as of July 1. Obviously the 50 percent reduction goal you wind up with will differ substantially depending on whether your starting point is set before or after the ban.

Environmentalists of course wanted to use the lowest possible starting figure from which to cut 50 percent. “We’re at a crossroads in this state,” says CBE’s Kevin Greene. “That’s why we want to see some strong goals and penalties to make everyone take recycling much more seriously. Too many local officials are looking for quick fixes.” Like landfills or incinerators.

So the environmentalists proposed as the starting point the total amount of garbage landfilled in 1991–after all yard waste would presumably be going elsewhere and after recycling had made a significant dent in the waste stream. Business, however, insisted on a definite number immediately, so that they could know what to shoot for. They also pointed out that if it was advertised that the goals would be pegged to 1991 disposal totals, that would offer everyone an incentive to dump as much garbage as possible that year, instead of getting busy right away on recycling.

Based on task-force discussions, DENR finally decided to split the difference. It took the average of the garbage disposed of over the past three years (49 million cubic yards), subtracted from that the industrial-process wastes (which can’t be recycled by households, 3 million cubic yards), and gave half credit for yard waste no longer landfilled (about 3 million cubic yards). That left 43 million cubic yards of total landfill deposits to work from. The goal was to shave that figure by 25 percent by 1995 (down to 32.5 million cubic yards) and by 50 percent by 2000 (down to 21.5 million cubic yards, thus recycling 21.5 million cubic yards; for comparison, figures from Illinois recycling centers indicate that we now recycle somewhere between 3 and 9 million cubic yards per year.) With this structure and these goals, says Karen Witter, Illinois would have been in “very much a leadership position” among the 50 states.

This only sounds good, replies Howard Learner; he suggests that this goal be looked at relative to current landfill totals. Take the most recent waste figure (46 million cubic yards, 1989), subtract special wastes and yard wastes, and we get about 36 million cubic yards being landfilled now. What’s so great about reducing this to 32.5 over five years?

“These goals are a sham and akin to no environmental progress at all,” snaps Learner. “This is about as much recycling progress as would occur with no law at all.” The problem with the task force, he adds, was that DENR was altogether too anxious to accede to businesses’ desire to do little. “For negotiations to work, the government agency has to be willing to put some fear of God into the waste generators and disposers.” (The 2000 goal, he acknowledges, is not nothing–but, he points out, “we aren’t waiting until 2000 to decide on new landfills and incinerators.” Once built, these will exert their own pull away from recycling.)

DENR’s Lieberman admires Learner’s zeal, denies his allegation, and questions his knowledge of Illinois garbage. Since only about half the total waste stream is recyclable, he says, a reduction of 4 or 5 million cubic yards is sizable. What’s more, the 2000 goal (down to 21.5 million cubic yards in landfills) is truly ambitious–it means that by the end of this decade Illinois would be recycling pretty much all its glass, aluminum, steel, paper, and newsprint, as well as some plastics. Wouldn’t this have been a good place for the environmentalists to declare victory and shake hands, instead of continuing to duke it out with the alleged villains?

Why argue in such detail about goals? asks Lieberman. The beauty of a market-driven system, he says, is that these goals, set up by lawmakers at the start, are “really a fiction to cause people to focus. Once you get businesses developed that use recycled products, they aren’t going to quit working once they’ve met some state numbers.” The fixation on getting one particular target figure rather than another written into law, in his view, is a habit left over from the days when the simple melodrama of pollution control by state edict made more sense.

Winter blossomed into spring 1990. It was almost time to report back to the legislature, and the task force still had not agreed on goals and penalties. Yet an even more troublesome issue lay ahead: finding the money necessary to help local recycling programs get started and to develop markets for the stuff being separated and saved.

One logical idea was to pay for both with a small increase in the “tipping fee,” a charge the state collects on every load dumped into a landfill. There is a certain charm to this market-driven idea of making landfills less attractive by driving up their price, and then using those proceeds to make the recycling alternative more attractive. But the waste industry wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re paying our share,” they said, as did the city of Chicago. Since the city acts partially as its own disposal company, handling the garbage from most small residential buildings, an increased state tipping fee would in effect raise Chicago’s property-tax rates. Obviously the city wants to steer clear of that, no matter how good the cause.

As an alternative, the business representatives on the task force offered to back a new tax on Illinois businesses, based on their gross receipts–until they found out that it probably would violate Illinois’ constitutional limitation on corporate income taxes. (The ratio of corporate to individual income-tax rates cannot be greater than 8 to 5, which it already is.)

A final try: Uffelman, representing the solid-waste industry, now contends that the program could be paid for without any new funding sources. Local governments are already authorized to collect a tipping fee like the state’s, though most do not; they could institute such fees, he maintains, and seek additional funding through the state Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, which already dispenses bountiful incentives to many more dubious enterprises. (Uffelman adds that local governments that contract with private haulers for garbage collection can add recycling programs at no cost to the government simply by adding the appropriate specifications the next time the city’s garbage contract is up for bid.) But local-government representatives such as Bill Barron of Lake County were adamant about getting state money: “We can’t do this for free. If there’s no funding in this package, I will fight to the death to see it defeated.”

This lack of consensus might not have mattered, since finding funds is something legislators are good at. Just possibly, had the task force been able to agree on everything else, the General Assembly could have come up with the grease to make the plan go. But by the time DENR introduced its version of the task-force product (Senate Bill 2001), it was an orphan. The environmentalists bad-mouthed it as a “do-nothing” bill, and the other parties were cool and quick to amend. Still, it did get all the way to the final stage of passage. (The landfill-siting task force’s “concept bill,” House Bill 4013, didn’t even get out of committee.)

At this point, around mid-June, the legislative leadership decided that it would be bad politics to try to settle one half of the garbage subject (recycling) without the other (landfills). Through Representative Myron Kulas, chairman of the house Energy and Environment Committee, the leadership put the bills from both task forces on ice and arranged for a new combined task force to talk about both landfill siting and recycling and waste reduction.

This group, now meeting every other week in Springfield, is chaired by the chamber of commerce’s Marder. It includes the usual cast–environmentalists, local officials, and business representatives, most of them from the original two task forces–and is supposed to come up with a comprehensive package for the postelection legislative session in November. The “megadeal” hovering in the air would run something like this: if the environmentalists agree to loosen local restrictions on landfills and incinerators, then business and government will agree to beefed-up recycling and waste reduction.

But since the legislature went home at the end of June, the environmentalist position seems to have hardened. “When I look back on it, I think the [task-force] process was doomed to fail from the start,” says CBE’s Kevin Greene. By the time the new combined task force met July 16, Greene had attended three different gatherings of grass-roots antilandfill and antiincinerator groups–in southwest Chicago, south-suburban University Park, and downstate Bloomington–and they had given him his marching orders: No megadeal. Period. Leave Senate Bill 172 alone. The price of more recycling was not going to be a lessened ability to block landfills. Accompanied by Joseph Schwartz, who had lobbied for the Illinois Environmental Council during the session, Greene quit the task force on July 16 rather than discuss any changes in landfill siting.

“Siting control is the only tool these groups have to force business and industry to go to safer alternatives,” Greene explained a few days after the walkout. “Until they see far-reaching state programs, working at the top of the waste hierarchy, adopted and implemented across the state, it’s just not a trade we’re prepared to make.” The grass-roots groups have met and are forming a statewide solid-waste coalition, which plans to offer an alternative bill to whatever the new task force proposes, rather than return to the table to try to work something out.

A walkout is not necessarily a sign of strength, but for environmentalists this time it had better be. Greene and his numerous constituents have given up all influence they might have had on any deal that emerges, and they may have lost credibility in the legislature if they try to kill a deal there this fall.

“It hurts not to have them at the table,” acknowledges task-force chairman Marder. “But the people at the table are elected local officials who aren’t about to jeopardize their positions [by offending their antilandfill constituents]. If the waste industry and local officials can agree on something, that sucker may pass.” Nobody gains clout by refusing to participate in a process sanctioned by a clout-heavy legislative leadership.

There were three environmental representatives on the new task force before the walkout. Greene (who represented CBE and the grass-roots groups) is gone. Howard Learner of BPI has not attended a single meeting because his clients (CBE and the Sierra Club) don’t want him to participate. “Good public policy is not going to come out of back rooms anymore,” says the Sierra Club’s Carolyn Raffensperger. “It’s going to come from politicians being held accountable to their constituents.”

The third seat was held by a single group, McHenry County Defenders, who are staying and talking. MCD is a 20-year-old local environmental group with a reputation for effectiveness and an honorable history of fighting landfills in the northwest suburbs. Dale Berry, a Chicago labor attorney who chairs the Defenders’ solid-waste committee, says, “The problem with 172 is that you’re always reacting. I went to one of the meetings Kevin [Greene] had, and I don’t think those people [the grass-roots antilandfill groups] are analyzing the total picture.

“My view is that changing nothing is not really the wisest long-term course. It’s not impossible to site landfills now. And this is an opportune time to negotiate. Because of siting difficulties and the city of Chicago’s concern, they are willing to make at least conceptual commitments. . . . If we ‘win’ [i.e., make no deal and simply preserve 172], it won’t stop anything. They’ll just go and get more Robbinses, and we’ll lose.”

Robbins, an economically desperate community in the far-south suburbs, is the site of a proposed incinerator that has environmental activists up in arms. Berry’s point is that for environmentalists, to stalemate may be to lose. If the new task force reaches some kind of megadeal–say, a market-driven recycling program in exchange for a slight easing in landfill siting–and if the environmentalists who walked out succeed in killing that deal when it reaches the state legislature, then the state will have done nothing for another year. Meanwhile life will go on, and garbage will go somewhere. Local governments, including the city of Chicago, are making their own solid-waste plans. If, as seems likely in the absence of state pressure, they rely on “quick fixes,” these new-era landfills and incinerators–established as the end product of a systematic planning process–will be much more difficult for citizens to stop than were the old kind.

Already the rude outlines of Illinois’ poststalemate garbage future are discernible: on the drawing boards, in addition to the Robbins incinerator, are state senator Roger Keats’s Fulton County landfill; the Bartlett balefill; and a huge railhead transfer station on Chicago’s west side, which, according to Greene, would bale garbage for shipment downstate, to Iowa, or to South Dakota.

This is the worst scenario. If enough of these expensive garbage-hungry facilities get started, then recycling and waste reduction will remain marginal enterprises, while the “convenient” leak-prone landfills and air-polluting incinerators suck up most of the waste stream. Should this ugly and irresponsible scene come to pass, some of the blame will have to fall on those environmentalists who had a livable but imperfect deal in hand and spurned it, and on those who had a seat at the table where a better deal might have been cut and walked away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.