Smile Politely

We need to talk trash

View of a park bench against which are at least nine filled white trash bags. There are buckets and trash pickers nearby, and a volunteer trash collector in an orange t-shirt on the right of the image.
Boneyard Creek Cleanup / Champaign Park District

Over the years, we’ve received several emails from readers concerning the garbage situation in Champaign-Urbana. This is a perennial issue. We’ve found public questions and concerns dating back decades. Here at Smile Politely, we try to give space to serious community issues as well as seemingly small ones. The small complaints are often symptoms of larger systemic problems, ones we usually can’t fix easily. We bring these conversations forward to the public by way of initiating change, even if change is necessarily slow. So let’s have a conversation about garbage. 

The recurring garbage questions and complaints we get include: Why are there multiple trash hauling companies servicing both cities, on the same routes, on the same days? What makes sense about three or four (or more) different companies driving down the same street to pick up two or three houses’ garbage? Many of these haulers begin early in the morning — some folks have noted before 5 a.m. — which is noisy and disruptive. Why can’t the cities of Champaign and Urbana franchise or hire out one or two companies to collect garbage and recycling, making waste removal services a utility included in taxes (or billed to residents)? 

The current situation, with multiple haulers servicing some of, but not all of, the same areas is:

  • inefficient.
  • disruptive. 
  • damaging to roads (because there are more heavy trucks on them more frequently). 

For the last several weeks, one trash hauler has been suffering from issues that continue to result in missed or severely delayed pick ups. This isn’t a one-off scenario, as a writer noted in a January 2023 letter to the editor published in the News-Gazette. This might seem like the petty, fist-shaking complaint of a curmudgeon, but it becomes a literal sanitation problem. Piles of trash attract wildlife who are tenacious and ingenious in their attempts to acquire food — just ask those of us who have had to replace multiple trash bins because the squirrels have chewed through the plastic. 

Furthermore, garbage and recycling left on the side of the road often spill out and blow away, thereby creating litter. That litter ends up on the side of the roadways, is often dangerous to wildlife, gets into and clogs sewer drains, and is an eyesore. We were shocked and appalled that the recent Boneyard Creek Cleanup resulted in 2,300 pounds of garbage being collected from a half-mile area. That is about the weight of a Fiat 500. 

In 2021, C-U Citizen’s Access published an article about C-U’s litter problem, noting the area on North Prospect, just north of Meijer and Walmart, as particularly unsightly. Since then, this area has been much tidier, with fewer noted instances of trash-strewn fields. 

Trash in Champaign’s parks has been a problem for several years, with the Champaign Park District regularly posting reminders on social media to collect your garbage. As we move into the summer with higher park usage, this will undoubtedly be a problem again. As we have noted before, adding a few more bins to high traffic areas during high use seasons — where those bins have to be emptied anyway — seems like a relatively easy way to help address this particular issue. People are more likely to put their garbage in the bin if the bins are easily identified and not overflowing. Similarly, adding more dog poop bag dispensers and trash bins in C-U’s parks (and dog parks) might encourage people to clean up after their pets. Sometimes even the most responsible dog owners run out of their own bags, cause, you know, shit happens. We understand that this requires an investment, that money does not grow on trees, and organizations are limited by the logistics of available resources. We think it’s still worth serious consideration, if even only as a seasonal change. 

Speaking of seasonal trash, over the coming weeks, tens of thousands of students will vacate their housing, leaving behind a whole host of garbage and things they can’t fit in their cars or U-Hauls. University of Illinois Facilities & Services organizes the collection of unwanted furniture during the spring move out, and the University YMCA’s Dump & Run collection takes place in early August, with a big sale of donated items in late August. Not all students will use the U of I receptacles; now is the best time of year for acquiring “treasure,” if that’s your vibe. Other area charities like Habitat ReStore, Goodwill and Salt & Light will accept donations, too. ReStore and Salt & Light will pick up furniture, if you have enough pieces (call to make arrangements). While it’s ultimately the responsibility of students to take care of their trash, once they leave the onus falls on landlords and the cities to ensure garbage is properly disposed of. 

Although recycling is not quite the same as trash, the processes and issues are similar. There is much cultural anxiety about plastics (nano, micro, and otherwise); most of us want to do “our part” and what is “right” for the environment. In Champaign, all trash haulers also haul away recycling. In Urbana, there is a city-wide recycling program. Once upon a time, there was a much-used recycling center in Champaign where you could recycle your own items, but that closed in 2010. There are places in town to recycle all sorts of things, though depending on what it is, there might be a fee to do so. You can recycle some yard waste. The cities collect yard waste in the spring and fall. There is a county-wide electronics recycling event, but you need to register, and it only happens twice a year. There will be a county hazardous waste recycling center at some point, but it is not open yet. 

Humans produce a lot of waste, and for the most part (minus a certain truant trash hauling service that shall not be named) in C-U, things are relatively well managed. Still, there is room for improvement. We’d love to see a place to dispose of used cooking oil, and a community compost for food scraps. While both Champaign and Urbana have good outlines of where to recycle and dispose of materials, we would like to see more centrality and regularity with how and when to dispose of and recycle the more “random” items we come to acquire in our lives (electronics, hazardous waste). And maybe, just maybe, we can figure out a way to have fewer garbage trucks barreling down our streets — while still collecting trash on schedule — without putting companies out of business. Email us to share your thoughts and complaints (petty or otherwise) about waste disposal in C-U. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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