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Chicago, You're Recycling Wrong: City Offers $50 Prize for Changing Ways

By Ted Cox | August 29, 2014 12:36pm | Updated on September 2, 2014 8:36am
 City worker Katherine Hernandez distributes blue carts to homes in West Ridge in February.
City worker Katherine Hernandez distributes blue carts to homes in West Ridge in February.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

CITY HALL — Having tried the stick — and the sticker — as punishment, the city is about to entice residents with a carrot in the form of a $50 grocery gift card in a bid to expand its blue-cart recycling program.

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams plans to announce a citywide contest next month to reward residents who properly fill their blue recycling carts. They could win a $50 Jewel-Osco gift card, courtesy of Coca-Cola and its charitable foundation.

Ted Cox says the city claims to save millions when people recycle correctly:

Williams delivered blue carts to the Northwest Side last October to finally, fully cover all of Chicago in the recycling program, but he said Thursday, "It's not being embraced across the city evenly.

 Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams lays out the do's and don'ts of recycling.
Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams lays out the do's and don'ts of recycling.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"Folks think, 'We have the cart, and it's over and done,'" Williams added. "It's not. Now is the hard part. The hard part is getting the resident to join in and actually participate, and not just participate, but participate correctly."

Without naming neighborhoods, Williams said, "Your single-family homes, for the most part, do pretty well," including the bungalow belt, where recycling is a relatively recent addition.

Yet he added, "Usually the areas that we're having issues with are multiunit dwellings" and neighborhoods with concentrations of larger apartment buildings.

In the past, Streets and Sanitation crews have tried to shame residents into compliance with stickers posted on the carts pointing out they contain forbidden items that can't be recycled, like lawn trimmings, general garbage and, yes, cardboard pizza boxes, which are banned because the grease makes them impossible to recycle. (Sticklers can detach the top and recycle that, but even Williams acknowledges he doesn't expect that of everyone.)

The sticker, he said, is not an actual punishment, but instead acts as a warning to Streets and San workers.

"Really, the sticker is just to notify [the] crews that this cart is contaminated and we need to dump it," Williams said.

Now, the city will try the reward approach, with "prize patrols" cruising alleys.

"If everything in that cart is as it should be, and the right materials are in there, they give the resident a $50 Jewel card," Williams said, adding that the card  will actually be delivered in the mail.

The effort is considered a contest because there's an element of chance to a prize patrol singling out a blue cart at a time when it hasn't been filled with a banned substance.

Williams allowed that it's not as easy as it sounds.

"You have to really embrace it," he said. "You have to be informed, you have to stay informed, and you really have to stay on top of what goes into the cart."

Williams said that even his own blue cart has failed to pass muster on a designated recycling pickup day. Curious about why his blue cart hadn't been emptied, he examined it and found someone had slipped a couple of shrubs into the bottom before it had been filled.

The city has a website listing the accepted and banned items.

"This is a win-win," Williams said. "Nobody loses here. Everything that you recycle takes away from a landfill. We're saving tax dollars on the landfill."

Chicago's blue-cart recycling began in 2007 and replaced blue bags, which had been called a "fiasco" as the bags had to be bought at stores, and once filled, were prone to tears and spilling. Many Chicagoans believed garbage workers weren't even bothering to remove recyclables from the trash — so they didn't bother recycling themselves.

Williams said that has all changed with the blue carts.

"It's definitely being recycled," he said, pointing to data showing that the city recycled 61,000 tons in 2012; 85,000 tons last year; and projects to recycle 120,000 tons this year.

Last year's estimated savings from the cost of sending trash to landfills was $3.7 million, he said.

He expects the prize program to accelerate that trend, saying, "It is certainly going to help."

The contest is formally scheduled to be announced Sept. 15, with U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) playing a role in promoting it.

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