Open Spaces

After the Truck: What Happens to Garbage
and Recycling

Rumbling through our cold, dark neighborhood are men and women who know our dirty little secrets from the bins and totes that contain the matter that would otherwise litter our lives. The story of our trash does not end when it leaves our driveway each week, but leads to landfills or material recovery facilities.

By April Anderson | Photo: Susan McConnell


Many companies vie for the opportunity to haul away garbage and recycling from Barrington and its neighboring communities. Groot Industries, the largest independent solid waste management services provider in Illinois, and Lake Barrington-based Prairieland Disposal & Recycling, a locally-based company that prides itself on being “stewards of the environment,” offer unique perspectives and services relating to recycling.

Why recycle? Landfills tell all

Since 1978, the number of landfills in the United States has dropped from 14,000 to less than 2,000 according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

When garbage is picked up, it goes to transfer stations, which serve as holding areas until it can be taken to landfills. Some garbage from the Barrington area is sent to a landfill in Grayslake, while other garbage goes as far as Rockford. The landfill in Grayslake is estimated to reach its holding capacity within the next 20 years, while the one in Rockford has been given a limit of 30. Eventually, our trash may be filling landfills along the Mississippi River.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s (IEPA) Annual Landfill Capacity Report (2012) confirms the statewide average landfill life based on current disposal rates is 26 years.

Secrets of a Garbage and Recycling Truck Driver

For the past 20 years, Rob Bartsch has been picking up garbage and recyclables five days a week, even when holidays shift the days around. Bartsch begins his workday at 6 a.m. and finishes when he completes his rounds eight to 10 hours later.

Using a split-body truck with one compartment for recycling and a separate compartment for waste, Bartsch is able to complete his work in one weekly visit, getting out of his biofuel-run truck at each stop to methodically hook up each tote and empty its contents.

He's experienced picking up a bin of unwashed recyclables and having their sordid contents splash on his clothing, as well as removing disposable diapers and sauce-splattered pizza boxes from recycling totes. This good-natured “Mr. Clean”-like Prairieland Disposal & Recycling Services driver in jeans and a Prairieland Disposal neon jacket is passionate about his work and is eager to share ways to reduce waste and improve the recycling process.

Old things become new

Seeing the need to produce less waste, Barrington was one of the first communities in the Northwest Suburbs to establish a three-bin system for recycling paper, aluminum, and glass in the mid-‘80s.

Replaced by comingled containers over a decade later, recycling reduces the waste that goes to landfills while providing an ongoing source of materials for a variety of new products. “Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely,” reports Groot Industries’ Municipal Affairs Manager Frank Hillegonds. Used beverage containers can be made into new ones in 7-10 days using local sources.

“The majority of our cardboard goes to China where it becomes packaging for products, [with] some heading to Wisconsin and Iowa,” explains Hillegonds.

“Office paper, cardboard, junk mail, newspaper, aluminum, and other used beverage containers are the most productive items we recycle.”

Where magazines are reunited

At a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), comingled recyclables are separated and baled so they are ready to be shipped to companies that will process them into new products. In October 2013, Groot reopened its newly updated MRF in Elk Grove Village, replacing wheels, screens, and blowing air with one of the largest automated single-sort recycling facilities in the U.S. Seven optical sorters and a highly pressurized air system sort the items by number and grade, enabling Groot to process over 1,000,000 pounds of materials each day, increasing productivity within the renovated facility by 50 percent. “The new investment helps reduce recycling contamination and enhances the quality of the recovered recycling material for cleaner paper, plastic, and aluminum,” adds Hillegonds. “Each bale is 99 percent of what it’s supposed to be. It’s a much better product.”

Cutting waste in surprising ways

For Prairieland Disposal & Recycling owners Mary and Steve Schweinsberg, the journey into waste collection started with a horse. “It galled me that we threw out all of this waste,” reminisces Mary, who started the company’s manure recycling program with her husband Steve in 2004. “Manure is the biggest ton-per-ton recyclable in

Workers are hand-sorting paper at the Materials Recovery Facility. Paper is thoroughly screened manually for office paper and miscellaneous materials before going to the balers to be shipped to end markets.

Barrington Hills,” she adds, “and 100 percent recyclable.” When combined with food scraps, manure and bedding can be placed in static windrows to become compost which can be used for organic fertilizer.

Beginning March 1, Prairieland Disposal & Recycling will accept clean gym shoes and clothing for recycling during normal business hours, and 95 percent of clothes will be sent to Third World countries to be reused or converted to rugs or cleaning cloths. Beaten up gym shoes will be shredded and mixed with sand, pea gravel, and bits of tires for horse arenas.

“We really want people to make a change and recycle,” says Mary. Hillegonds agrees. Both companies are encouraging people to use bigger totes for recycling and smaller ones for waste. By being environmentally responsible through the simple act of recycling, everyone can make the world a better place.

10 things our recycling professionals wish we’d do

  1. Cardboard: Break down cardboard. “It makes everything sit better in the truck,” says Bartsch. “If it’s not broken down, cardboard ends up in the garbage.”
  2. Food items: Remove excessive amounts of food or liquid from glass, metal, and plastic so your tote doesn’t get stinky.
  3. Pizza boxes: Throw out the part of the pizza box covered with globs of cheese and sauce, but cut up the clean cardboard that’s left and recycle it!
  4. Water bottles: Don’t worry about leaving the lid on your water bottle. The material recovery facility separates everything.
  5. Keep items loose: “Don’t put [recyclables] in a bag, throw them in a container loose,” advises Mary, who advocates putting out a tote with a lid.
  6. Diapers: Disposable diapers are not recyclable. Bartsch frequently finds them mixed in with recyclables.
      • Note: Cuba Township Food Pantry accepts packages of disposable diapers both opened and unopened for children as well as adults to benefit residents of Cuba Township in need. Please call 847-381-1924.
      • For larger donations of unopened diapers, contact Diaper Bank Partnership of Lake County at 847-544-9568. DBPLC provides free diapers for health and wellness to Lake County residents in need.
  7. Batteries: Place electrical tape over the terminals of 9V batteries to prevent fire. Use the designated battery drop-off container at Prairieland Disposal & Recycling Services, Barrington Village Hall, or Barrington Public Works during regular business hours to drop off common household batteries.
  8. Paper media: Magazines and mail are recyclable (Including this one!)
  9. Odds and ends: Recycling is not limited to paper, metal, glass, and plastic. In our region there is manure and food waste, electronic, and gym shoe recycling. For more information, visit,,,, and
  10. Styrofoam: Understand that just because it has a recycling symbol, doesn’t mean it is recycled. While plastic grocery bags can be recycled, there is not a market for post-consumer styrofoam waste, so it ends up in a landfill.

April Anderson is naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at: