One way cities can tout their commitment to going green is to consistently post robust recycling rates. Seattle recycles 60% of its trash. Los Angeles tops that with a 76% recycling rate. And at the very top of the heap: San Francisco, with an astounding 80% of its trash recycled.
And where’s Chicago? At the bottom of the bin.
The latest figures from the Department of Streets and Sanitation put the city’s overall recycling rate at 8.8%, one of the worst rates in the country. That’s pretty much where the rate has been over the last several years. Rahm Emanuel wasn’t able to make a dent into Chicago’s recycling blues, and neither has Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Now Lightfoot’s trying a new tack. The city just jettisoned its biggest recycling contractor, Waste Management Inc., North America’s largest waste hauler. A 2018 Better Government Association investigation found that blue bins serviced by Waste Management crews were 20 times more likely to be labeled as contaminated with non-recyclables than bins serviced by other collection crews.
That meant that Waste Management got paid by the city for labeling the bins as contaminated. Maybe a conscientious recycler accidentally put plastic bags or Styrofoam into the bin, which are no-nos. But those mistakes allowed Waste Management to be paid a second time when collection crews took the contents of those bins to a Waste Management landfill due to the compromised contents, the BGA found. The city was paying the garbage hauler twice, which means taxpayers were paying twice. Waste Management denied any financial motive in labeling bins as contaminated.
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The new contract, with the recycling firm LRS, requires the company to pick up recyclables from bins with less than 50% contamination, and to face fines from $25 to $250 for missed pickups. The city also has hired the Delta Institute to look at what has and hasn’t worked in cities that enjoy strong recycling rates. Delta’s findings could be ready by the end of June.
In the meantime, there’s another recent look into Chicago’s recycling woes that offers strong clues to what needs fixing. In December, the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson, found that the Department of Streets and Sanitation had not been thoroughly enforcing the city’s recycling ordinance on commercial buildings and apartment buildings with five or more units. That law requires owners or occupants of those buildings to hire private haulers to provide recycling services, and requires those haulers to submit annual reports on the source, amount and type of recyclables collected.
How much did Streets and Sanitation’s laggard enforcement have on the city’s abysmal recycling rate? Well, consider this: The city has nearly 500,000 households that are in buildings with five or more units. And it has 60,000 businesses that are required to hire private recycling services. If Streets and Sanitation did its job and enforced the city’s recycling law, it’s a fair bet that Chicago’s level of recycling would markedly improve.
Streets and Sanitation acknowledged to Ferguson that it wasn’t focusing on higher-density apartment buildings and businesses in recent years, instead turning its attention to the city’s blue cart recycling program for residential buildings with one to four units. Ignoring 500,000 households and 60,000 businesses is no way to get recycling in Chicago back on track. Yes, it’s good to look at best practices in other major cities, but in the meantime, there’s another simple remedy. Enforce the laws you’ve got on the books.
Of course, nothing gets recycled if Chicagoans don’t make the effort to separate out recyclables before its time to take out the trash. It’s not a big ask. It takes just a few seconds to empty and rinse bottles, jars and aluminum cans, to empty and recap milk cartons and to flatten cardboard boxes. It’s on all of Chicago — government, businesses, residents — to remedy the scarlet letter the city has worn for far too long. It’s about time that Chicago becomes one of the best, rather than one of the worst, recyclers in America.
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