GURNEE – Hidden away in the recesses of many a closet are those pairs of battered old tennis shoes no one really knows what to do with: Perhaps the heels are wearing a little thin or the laces have begun fraying at the lace holes from being tied and retied over and over again. The toes have been scuffed beyond all recognition and the color is so faded its impossible to recall how vibrant the color actually was when they were first purchased.
The weather has finally warmed and walking and running trails have finally dried from the rains that battered Lake County during the spring months. The urge to get out and enjoy nature is getting stronger with each favorable weather forecast. The question becomes, though: What to do with those downtrodden shoes?
Throwing them out is a common – and simple – solution. However, Merlanne Rampale has another suggestion: Recycle them.
Rampale is the outreach, education and programs director for the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County (SWALCO), an agency dedicated to the preservation and conservation of the local environment and educating the public on the small actions it can take that can have big impacts on ecosystems around the world.
Thirty years ago, Lake County became the first county in Illinois to “adopt a solid waste management plan in compliance with the Illinois Solid Waste Planning and Recycling Act.” In 1991, SWALCO was created to implement and enforce that plan. The agency’s mission, in part, is “to implement a regional approach to solid waste management which addresses the economic, political and environmental issues in Lake County.”
Reuse-A-Shoe is a program that SWALCO has been running for nearly two decades. The agency has established more than 50 year-round drop-off sites throughout the county where people can deposit new, gently used or worn pairs of shoes they’ve outgrown or simply don’t wear anymore.
“Even the really worn shoes, unless they’re totally falling apart, they may provide some safety or comfort for somebody who knows where in this country or around the world,” Rampale said.
According to SWALCO’s website, about 85% of unwanted textiles, including shoes and clothing, wind up in landfills, many of which are rapidly approaching capacity in the U.S. and around the world.
A 2018 report by the Solid Waste Environmental Excellent Protocol estimates that “over the next five years, total landfill capacity in the U.S. is forecast to decrease by more than 15%. This means that by 2021 only 15 years of landfill capacity will remain.” The report goes on to estimate as of 2021, landfills in the Midwest – encompassing Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin – will only have 11 years until their capacities are reached.
To help reduce the amount of waste that winds up in landfills, Lake County residents can take their unwanted or outgrown clothes to one of SWALCO’s drop-off sites throughout the county. Rampale said that simple action can have major benefits.
“If you’re looking at global warming, climate change and looking at waste management from that greenhouse gas, carbon footprint perspective, textile is really big,” she said. “It takes a real toll on the earth. So having a program like this, I think, will be really important.”
SWALCO doesn’t just address textiles and old shoes, however. Its other programs include electronics recycling, household chemical waste and food waste. SWALCO also has begun working with Lake County schools to take an environmentally friendly look at how they approach and divert food waste in their cafeterias in its Earth Flag program.
The program educates students and faculty about “the need to rethink trash habits and the impact waste reduction, reuse and recycling have on the environment,” according to SWALCO’s website. The Earth Flag program consists of five components, which participating schools must meet during a school year.
“If they have whole apples or a container of cookies or crackers or half a sandwich, we encourage [students] at most schools to take them home to their families so their parents can know what they’re eating and so it can be reused by someone in the family,” she said. “But in some cases if there are apples or yogurts or milk cartons, they’re either put back into circulation according to health codes or we have a share table and that’s where maybe other kids can come up and grab something if they’re still hungry.”
Creating a sustainable lifestyle and reducing the amount of waste a person generates can seem overwhelming, but Rampale insists it’s all about doing what you can to help. To that end, SWALCO also hosts mobile events throughout the county, including its Recycle-o-Ramas, where residents can bring a variety of waste products to be properly disposed of, from expired medicine prescriptions to eye glasses and hearing aids. Acceptable items vary by event, Rampale pointed out, and the SWALCO website offers information on these mobile events, permanent drop-off sites throughout the county and answers to frequently asked questions about recycling.
“It’s really shifting our mindsets, and even if we all picked two or three things maybe we could all do a little differently, I think we underestimate what a great impact we could all have,” she said. “Families and individuals. We work so closely. I feel like this is such a great community here with so many wonderful towns and villages that are members with SWALCO. … And that’s what it takes, all of us coming together.”
• Household chemical waste event, 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. June 15 at Lake Zurich High School. For a list of acceptable items, visit swalco.org
• Reuse-o-Rama, 1 to 4 p.m. June 15 at The Sachs Center, 455, Lake Cook Road, Deerfield.
• Household chemical waste event, by appointment only, June 24 at SWALCO HCW facility in Gurnee.