Building a Sustainable Tomorrow: The 2024 Illinois Recycling Foundation Annual Conference

June 6, 2024 / Comments Off on Building a Sustainable Tomorrow: The 2024 Illinois Recycling Foundation Annual Conference

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In the tranquil town of Crystal Lake, Illinois, environmental advocates, industry leaders, and government officials gathered at the Holiday Inn for the 2024 Illinois Recycling Foundation (IRF) Annual Conference. Over two days, the conference, with its theme “Building Partnerships; Reducing Waste,” aimed to forge new paths in recycling, composting, and waste management. This conference was not just another industry gathering; it was a vibrant tapestry of innovation, collaboration, and an earnest commitment to renewability.


A Warm Welcome and Visionary Beginnings

The conference commenced with an evocative opening video, setting an inspiring tone. The narrator captured the essence of Illinois’ recycling journey, welcoming Foundation and Association members, government representatives, and honored guests to the event. “Welcome to the 2024 Illinois Recycling Foundation Conference,” it intoned. “We are proud to bring businesses involved in reuse, recycling, and composting together with government and environmental change-makers for this informative two-day in-person conference.”

The video celebrated Illinois’ rich history in environmental stewardship, from grassroots movements to comprehensive statewide programs, underscoring the collective effort required to shape a sustainable future. It highlighted the strides made in reducing waste, increasing recycling rates, and promoting sustainability, while also acknowledging the challenges faced in managing diverse waste streams.

Following the video, Clair Ryan, President of the Illinois Recycling Foundation, took the stage to a warm round of applause. “It’s my profound honor to welcome you to the 2024 Illinois Recycling Foundation Conference and to thank each and every one of you for coming,” she began, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. “This is honestly somewhat of a ‘pinch me’ moment in my life; if you had told me three years ago that I would be on a stage, representing the longest-running organization of recyclers in Illinois and introducing this event, I don’t think I would have believed you.”

Clair’s gratitude extended to the conference sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, and attendees. “Thank you for making this year’s conference a success!” she exclaimed, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and innovation in advancing recycling and waste reduction efforts across the state.

“Our theme for this conference, ‘Building Partnerships; Reducing Waste,’ reflects our commitment to collaboration and progress,” Clair continued. “If there’s one thing I hope you take with you when you leave this conference, it’s a new contact or the spark of an idea for a new partnership that will help you reach your goals.”

She acknowledged the significant federal grant money available to support recycling infrastructure and education initiatives, describing it as “the largest investment towards waste reduction by the federal government in decades.” Clair also touched on the accelerated success of state bills fitting within an extended producer responsibility framework, such as the Battery Stewardship Act.

“In addition to exciting opportunities, we’re facing some major challenges as an industry,” Clair noted. “Scientists are finding micro and nano plastic particles and PFAS chemicals pretty much everywhere they look for them – in our soil, in our drinking water, in fresh and marine ecosystems, in our food, in our bodies. I have to keep faith that we, as a recycling community and as waste reduction advocates, can innovate and educate, and help build political will to find solutions to these pressing problems.”


The Power of Emotional Intelligence: Alice Martin’s Keynote

The keynote address was delivered by Alice Martin, co-principal of the Chicago-based leadership consultancy Martin & Downs. With over 35 years of experience, Alice is a visionary in leadership and strategic planning. Her address, titled “Emotional Intelligence for Organizational Leadership,” delved into the critical role emotional intelligence plays in enhancing leadership capabilities and fostering a collaborative and adaptive organizational culture.

Alice began with a question that resonated deeply with the audience: “Have you ever said something to an employee, project partner, or client that you immediately regretted?” Her engaging manner captivated the room as she explained, “Emotional intelligence is the magic elixir for leadership success.” Alice elaborated on the four pillars of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management, providing practical strategies for integrating these skills into leadership practices.

“Would your organization benefit from building strong relationships, managing conflicts, adapting to new technologies, and engaging customers more effectively?” she asked. The audience’s affirmative responses highlighted the relevance of her insights. Alice’s presentation was a masterclass in leadership, leaving attendees inspired to lead with empathy and effectiveness.


Celebrating Excellence: Awards Luncheon and Annual Member Meeting

The awards luncheon was a highlight of the conference, celebrating outstanding achievements in recycling and waste reduction. The room buzzed with anticipation as the award recipients were announced.



Outstanding Public Sector Award: Orland Township Highway Department

The Orland Township Highway Department, under the visionary leadership of Commissioner Antonio Rubino, received the Outstanding Public Sector Award. “Commissioner Rubino has been an active participant in our work, helping to redirect nearly 100 bicycles that may have entered the waste stream to beneficial use as tools of transportation and self-determination around greater Chicago and across the globe,” remarked Trevor Clarke, CEO of Working Bikes.

Since 2021, the department has recycled 518,378 pounds of electronics, extended drop-off hours, and organized and sorted various recyclables, including paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles. Their focus on reuse, through partnerships with organizations like Working Bikes, has significantly contributed to waste reduction efforts in the community.

Outstanding Partnership Award: Green Era Campus

The Green Era Campus was honored with the Outstanding Partnership Award for its collaborative efforts in transforming food waste into green jobs, renewable energy, fresh food, and healthy communities. “To date, Green Era Sustainability has successfully anaerobically digested 73,000 tons of food scraps generated in Cook County,” noted Anthony Tindall from Cook County Government.

The campus’s partnership with the Urban Growers Collective, a Black woman-led non-profit organization, has been instrumental in promoting sustainable food production and waste management practices. This initiative exemplifies the power of local partnerships in achieving notable accomplishments in recycling and composting.

Pathfinder Award: Village of Oak Park

The Village of Oak Park received the Pathfinder Award for its pioneering CompostAble Program. “Began as a pilot in 2012 and offered village-wide the following year, the program was the first ‘all-in-one cart’ organics program offered as an optional service through a municipal waste hauling contract,” announced Clair Ryan.

The program’s success in engaging institutions and businesses, including schools, supermarkets, and farmers markets, has provided excellent guidance for other communities looking to implement similar initiatives. Oak Park’s commitment to sustainability and innovation has paved the way for significant uptake of residential food scrap collection programs across the state.


Annual Member Meeting

The annual member meeting followed the awards luncheon, and Clair Ryan presented the minutes, which were approved with no opposition. Aaron Harmon, the treasurer, delivered the financial report, highlighting a favorable budget standing. “The budget is good; it’s stable,” Aaron noted, as he detailed the revenue and expenses.

The election of new board members saw enthusiastic support. Clair introduced the current board members running for a second term: Anthony Tindall from Cook County, Aaron Harmon from Midwest Fiber Recycling, Luke Fikejs from MW Recyclers, Inc., and Heather Presutti from GDB International. New board members included Becca Cottrell from Peoria County, Erika Helms from the Village of Oak Park, and Brian Zimmerman from the City of Livingston.

“I do want to just acknowledge two board members that stepped down midterm in the last year for their work: A. Dina Reed, formerly of the City of Springfield, and Bert Jacobson, who has been great friends of IRF,” Clair mentioned. She also gave a heartfelt thanks to Marta Keane of Will County, who decided not to seek an additional term. “Marta has been instrumental in our organization, and we have a small gift to show our appreciation,” she said, handing over a bouquet of flowers to Marta.


A Field Trip to Remember

The conference concluded with an enlightening field trip to several key recycling sites in and near McHenry County. This tour offered a hands-on look at the practical applications of recycling and waste management discussed during the conference.

Algonquin Township Highway Department

The first stop was the Algonquin Township Highway Department, where attendees learned about the department’s comprehensive recycling programs. These programs collect both commonly recycled materials and hard-to-recycle items such as tires, polystyrene foam, paint, and batteries. The department’s success in managing these materials was attributed to robust partnerships with various organizations.

WM Virginia Road Transfer

Next, attendees visited the WM Virginia Road Transfer station, a favorite field trip spot among McHenry County College environmental science students. The visit provided insights into the daily operations and best practices of a municipal solid waste transfer station. The site demonstrated how meticulous planning and efficient management are crucial in handling the vast amounts of waste processed daily.

Midwest Organics Recycling

The final stop was at Midwest Organics Recycling, located in the Lake County portion of McHenry. Here, attendees observed how landscape waste, dairy manure, and food scraps are transformed into Organimix compost. This facility exemplified the principles of sustainability and closed-loop recycling by converting organic waste into valuable compost used to enrich soils and support agriculture.