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NIU Geography professor encourages rethinking recycling

April 7, 2021

“Recycling is a complex process and is not particularly efficient in terms of energy and natural resource consumption,” says Courtney Gallaher, an associate professor in the NIU Department of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality.

Courtney Gallaher, associate professor

“Many of our recyclable products are not recycled in the ways we imagine, either because of contamination in the recycling process due to poor sorting on the end of consumers, or because there is no longer a market for those types of recycled materials,” she continues.

At the next NIU STEM Café on April 14, Gallaher plans to discuss recycling as a way of exploring how people interact with and manage their environment. “I plan to discuss the recycling industry as a way of framing a broader conversation about how we generate and handle waste, and how it impacts the people involved in the recycling industry.”

Gallaher will be joined by Meghann Maves, Total Recycling Program Manager at Waste Management Recycling Services, who will describe the recycling process and share examples of what happens when we don’t prepare our recyclable items properly. The speakers hope the audience will come away from this lively discussion with both practical tips for recycling properly, as well as a broader view of how recycling fits into larger economic and social systems.

In particular, Gallaher notes that our current model of consumption, which is highly dependent on single use products, has long lasting impacts on both the environment and the people and communities who recycle these products. “This system has created vast environmental and social injustices, that are often hidden when we frame recycling as an entirely positive environmental action,” she says.

Gallaher’s interest in recycling grew out of her research studying urban food production in large African cities. She says that food systems research intersects with issues of waste management in part because people often grow food on informal dumpsites or use wastewater for irrigation.  “As a result of my work in African cities, I have continued to be interested in how societies think about and manage waste, since both trash and recycling services often create vast social inequities in terms of who receives services and who is impacted by the handling and processing of our waste.”

“Our ability to actually recycle our products is dependent on international markets for the recycled materials, and when those markets change, as has been the case recently with China, then it jeopardizes our entire recycling system,” Gallaher says. “If we want to continue to recycle our products in the future, it will require us to rethink the ways in which we consume products and the types of materials they are made from.”

Gallaher emphasizes, “Given the current environmental crises we face, we should be focusing our attention as a society more towards reducing or reusing products, rather than just recycling.”

The STEM Café “Trash Talk: Rethinking Recycling” will take place online at 6 p.m. on April 14. Learn more  and register for this free event at

Northern Illinois University STEM Cafés are sponsored by NIU STEAM and are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role STEM fields play in our everyday lives. For more information, contact Judith Dymond, Ed.D., at 815-753-4751 or email [email protected].