Earth Day shines a light on local recycling efforts

Nonprofit focuses on foam as more take electronics

Ken Santowski loves to hate Styrofoam, but recycling the polystyrene foam has become his business.

While not many municipalities will take polystyrene foam, the company Santowski started 17 years ago, Chicago Logistic Service of Elgin, has increased its capacity by about 20 fold over the past five years.

Santowski also established drop-off locations in Lakewood, where he lives and is a village trustee, and did the same in Algonquin.

"The biggest problem is Styrofoam is very lightweight, and when you do crush it, it becomes airborne," Santowski said. "It's like snow."

It also takes up a lot of space despite being mostly air and still costs more to recycle than the by-product is worth, he said.

Recycling polystyrene foam has also become a priority of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, which teamed up with Santowski's business to purchase a polystyrene foam densifier late last year, said Ed Ellinghausen, who sits on the Defenders' Board of Directors.

The densifier chops the polystyrene foam up, takes out the air and re-compacts it, said Santowski, who is also a member of the Defenders.

It gets the foam down to about 10 percent of its original volume, Ellinghausen said.

The investment in polystyrene foam recycling comes as more municipalities and businesses are providing avenues for residents to recycle electronics, the last push the Defenders made in recycling, he said.

"In a way, it's a little reminiscent," he said. "Back 20 years ago, we were the only place where you could recycle cans and bottles, and we were campaigning to have curbside recycling so everyone can recycle. ... We put ourselves out of business, but that was a good thing."

Tuesday is Earth Day, and polystyrene recycling is just one of the evolvements in recycling over recent decades.

A state law that took effect Jan. 1, 2010, bans electronics from landfills, a measure advocated for because of the toxic heavy metals contained in electronics.

Since then, a lot more businesses are accepting home electronics – the law also prevents businesses from charging private individuals a fee to recycle home electronics – and so are more municipalities.

The Computer Recycling Center in Crystal Lake has been in the business for about 11 years, said co-owner John Niziolek II, whose primary business is Echelon Computers.

Niziolek found his way into the recycling business somewhat by accident.

Echelon Computers buys leased equipment, but not all the purchased equipment could be resold, he said. The pile started to grow, and they started looking for a way to recycle the computers.

"Reuse is the best use, so whenever possible that's the way to go," Niziolek said. "As for the products that are obsolete or non-functional to the point of non-repair, we take parts. ... The end of life commodities are not very profitable at all."

Ellinghausen was surprised by some of the electronics that people recycle through the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County's monthly drives in Woodstock and McHenry.

They get 32-inch flatscreen TVs, small flatscreen computer monitors and VCR players, he said. Anything that is functional gets separated and resold at their store in Woodstock.

"We haven't set the world on fire in terms of income that we generate from it, but it's consistent with our goal of reuse," Ellinghausen said.

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