Recycling is good for the ecology and a community's economy, but efforts at recycling vary greatly across the region.
Lake County produced a total of 231,708 tons of trash in 2012, according to figures compiled by the Lake County Solid Waste Management District. Of that total, almost three-quarters of it ended up in a landfill and about 27 percent (63,726 tons) was diverted through recycling. Comparable figures were not available for Porter County.
Only Lakes of the Four Seasons and Whiting reported recycling more tons of material than they sent to a landfill, both at about 58 percent diverted through recycling. The lowest tonnage rate of recycled material as compared to tons sent to landfills were Griffith and Dyer at 11 and 15 percent, respectively.
Curbside pickup of recycling is available in every community, but participation ranges from less than 50 percent in some communities to handful of properties shy of 100 percent in Whiting. Hobart offers curbside recycling only for single-family homes, where it now has about 94 percent participation.
Here's a look at how successful some communities have been with their recycling efforts.
About four years ago, the participation rate in the residential curbside recycling program was below 50 percent. City officials met with Jeff Langbehn, executive director of the Lake County Solid Waste Management District to discuss ways of improving that.
Public Works Director John Dubach said it was decided to go into the schools to promote recycling with childre through educational programs and recycling rallies and contests. The kids then get the message through to their parents.
"That was the one thing we saw that made the biggest impact," Dubach said. "Some people just don't want to be bothered or they're just negative about everything, but we're really happy with the way residents have bought into the program."
It also saved the city almost $90,000 in landfill fees in 2012 as 195 tons of material were recycled, while 352 tons went to a landfill at $42 a ton.
The city is switching to one-man trucks for picking up both trash and recycling, but Dubach said that will take about three years to accomplish. Hobart also began the process of providing residents with 96-gallon bins for both trash and recyclables. That's a $2 million expense that also will take another two or three years to achieve.
The county's latex paint recycling program also found a home in Hobart. Oil-based paints are not accepted.
"We'll try anything," Dubach said. "We were the first to try the paint recycling. We remix it and sell it for $3 a gallon. It gets better each year. ...As long as we break even, it is real good program, and we're breaking even. If we find a big investor, we could make money, but we're taking baby steps."
The city give residents bags for yard waste, which Dubach said no one else does. Most compost material is taken elsewhere to be used, but the city handles all its own brush, chipping it and applying it to an area formerly used as a landfill for dredging from Lake George. Some is made available to residents for mulching.
Valparaiso paid almost $315,000 in tipping fees for trash taken to a landfill in 2012. Its recycling program saved another $400,000 for the materials that didn't have to go to the landfill, according to Streets Commissioner Tony Reid.
Reid said recycled materials included about half-a-million plastic bags, almost 58 tons of electronics, 33 tons of scrap metal and 3.7 tons of waste oil. Another 4,500 tons of grass, brush, wood chips and leaves were composted.
Not only did Valparaiso save money, Reid said the amount of paper and cardboard taken in and recycled also saved almost 34,000 trees; moreover, 8 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 14 million gallons of water were saved, because it takes less energy and water to recycle material than to make it from scratch.
The city's recycling program has changed dramatically since curbside pickups were first offered. City Administrator Bill Oeding was public works director in 2004 when all the materials were sorted at the curb before being brought back to the public works yard to be cleaned and stored. Then the city had to find the best market to sell it.
"The problem with the curb sorting is that it is very slow and labor-intensive, and it costs a lot of money to run that sort of program," Oeding said. "It's easier and cheaper to bring it back as one large collection and mechanically (sorting), or letting people in sorting lines sort and clean it."
Rather than replace them with new trucks at $250,000 each and continuing to curb sort the materials, the city decided to clean up a couple of garbage trucks and comingle the recyclables.
"We had a lot of equipment and people operating it and the equipment kept breaking down, and it didn't make sense to continue doing that," Oeding said.
Providing everyone with 96-gallon bins for recycling generated more recyclable material because, when the smaller bins were filled, people tended to throw stuff in the trash, he said. The city now has about 76 percent participation, which the city is trying to increase.
"We have to develop a culture around it so people don't think about it. We've kind of reached a plateau (with participation). People are OK doing it if it is easy and doesn't inconvenience them. It's not been accepted in the Midwest like on the coasts and urban areas with a limit on landfill space."
Oeding said the plastic-bag recycling was started because he got tired of sending employees out to pick them up out of fences and trees.
Recycling has not been a strong point for Portage.
Streets and Sanitation Assistant Superintendent Randy Reeder said only about a quarter of the city's residents recycled in the past and removed only about 4 percent of the trash from being landfill fodder.
Reeder described a system that seemed set up to fail. Everyone was given two red, 18-gallon bins for putting recyclables, and pickups were every two weeks. Reeder said some people filled these quickly and simply put the rest in the trash.
Those really into recycling could get extra bins, but people complained about having to make several trips to the curb to take out both the trash and the recycling for pickup. Recyclables were separated at the curb, which is time-consuming and costly, and then there were those red bins themselves.
"My wife hated seeing that red bin in the kitchen," he said.
Portage has started with comingling the recyclables. Republic Services agreed to let the city dump all the recyclables at its facility for free and the company hauled them to a materials recycling facility for sorting and sale. The next step was replacing the red bins with 96-gallon totes with lids.
The amount of material recycled in 2011 was 824 tons. That increased to 1,063 in 2012 with the help of comingling, but that was still only 6.5 percent of the total household waste collected. This year, after the first week of the new system with only part of the city receiving the larger bins, Reeder said participation was up to about 50 percent.
The recycling bins are free to residents, paid for through a slight increase in the city's tipping fee, but extra trash bins cost $6 a month. Reeder said he expects to have 8,000 to 9,000 tons of recyclables this year. If achieved, it would save the city about $500,000.
Recycling pickups are still every other week, but he expects that to increase to every week at some point. His goal is to pick up recycling every week and trash every other week.
The success of Whiting's recycling program must make other communities ecologically green with envy.
"The whole idea is continuous improvement," Mayor Joseph Stahura said. "We are doing what we can to get stuff out of the landfill and improve the convenience for residents to recycle without driving all over the county to drop stuff off."
The city of just under 5,000 is a handful of properties away from having 100 percent participation in its recycling effort, and it is one of the few in the area recycling more than it is putting in the landfills. The city earned several grants and was named the Green Community of the Year for communities under 10,000 population the last three years running.
"A small city has a better chance of (achieving 100 percent participation), but it's a tough number to get to no matter what size you are," Stahura said. "We won a governor's award in the early 2000s, but 2006 was the kickoff to show what we could do."
That's when the city became the first in the state to put totes in the alleys just for recycling. The tonnage of recycling has increased every year since then. The city sent out a letter to residents explaining how it could save Whiting money if people recycled, and the Mayor's Youth Advisory Committee created "Globey," a recycling mascot to help promote the program.
In 2011-12, the Lake County Solid Waste Management District provided funding to expand the program to include plastic-bag recycling and to get the schools and the business district to begin recycling. That earned the city an award from Waste and Recycling Magazine.
Money talks, so Whiting created a bonus program to encourage employees to pick up more recyclables and increase the city's overall tonnage. For scrap metal, employees get half of what the city receives for recycling it. For the past three years, that program has funded $200 bonuses for employees.
"It's getting to be second nature to recycle," Stahura said.