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New Emphasis on Recycling 'Right' Has Some Folks Feeling Wronged

By  Patty Wetli and Alisa Hauser | January 28, 2016 5:37am 

 Confusion reigned as the city switched to
Confusion reigned as the city switched to "bagless" recycling. "Stick to basics," the city's recycling chief urged.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

BUCKTOWN — Chicago has a complicated relationship with recycling.

First there was the debacle that was the Blue Bag program, which left many longtime residents permanently suspicious of any recycling effort.

Now the city's new emphasis on recycling "right" has some folks feeling nothing but wronged.

At the beginning of the year, Streets and Sanitation, as well as its sub-contracted haulers including Waste Management, began enforcing a "bagless" rule, under which recyclables need to be placed loose in the blue bins instead of grouped in plastic bags.

The result: a whole lot of carts labeled "contaminated."

On a recent weekday afternoon, DNAinfo Chicago took a stroll through a Bucktown alley and found half of the blue bins slapped with the bright orange "sticker of shame."

"I find it hard to believe that virtually all of the bins on my street are in so-called violation because we're all really bad at recycling. Whatever contraband it is that is in my bin, and those of 80 to 90 percent of my neighbors, is a mystery," said Jarrett Altmin, a 15-year Bucktown resident.

"There are apparently new guidelines, but I'm not sure how they expect residents to know them without some sort of education. The obvious things like newspapers and aluminum cans are a no-brainer, but the rest of it seems pretty nebulous," he said.

RELATED: Are You Recycling Wrong? Take the Chicago Recycling Quiz

"This recent situation of course makes me, and others I'd imagine, reluctant to recycle," Altmin said.

Chris Sauve, director of recycling for Streets & San, said he anticipated a certain amount of backlash would accompany the bagless rule.

"We're still educating a lot of folks," Sauve admitted.

The department has been placing door hangers on homes notifying them of the change to bagless and the orange stickers are also intended to reinforce that message.

While some are offended by the sticker, Sauve said it's important for homeowners to leave them on the bin — it's the only way Streets & San can identify a recycling cart that needs to be picked up as trash. 

A notice wrapped to the handle of a Blue Cart that was not eligible for having its contents recycled. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

Keep it simple

For the past few years, Streets & San has been focused primarily on rolling out blue bins across the city and getting residents accustomed to their recycling schedule, Sauve said.

The city let bagged recyclables slide while rolling out blue carts, but they were never encouraged and became something of a 900-pound gorilla.

"It's always been kind of sitting there ... needing to clean up the stream" by banning the bags, Sauve said.

The department's new goal is to get people to recycle right, he said.

"It's certainly a big shift," Sauve said.

December's launch of a new website, Recycling By City Chicago, was a major step in that direction, providing a more user-friendly resource for people wondering what's recyclable and what isn't, Sauve said.

But for some, the site is a case of too much of a good thing, listing all sorts of do's and don't's, including whether jars and cans should be recycled with lids on or off.

"I think it's getting too complicated. I want to recycle, but don't want to be an expert in waste management," one DNAinfo reader posted on Neighborhood Square.

For people agonizing over whether a paper shopping bag with a cloth handle is recyclable (yes to the bag, no to the handle), Sauve has four simple words of advice:

"Stick to the basics."

Think bottles, cans, junk mail, newsprint, and plastic food and household cleanser containers. Trash anything questionable if checking the website is too cumbersome.

"If people just stick to the basics, they'll be far and away ahead of the game," Sauve said.

The same applies to those who "aren't tuned in at all" to recycling rules, he added.

No food, no electronics, no clothing, no plastic toys, no scrap metal, no construction materials.

"I've had conversations with people who say, 'It's just one two-by-four.' No," Sauve said.

When common sense fails

As people become more familiar with the new rules, Sauve said he expected fewer and fewer bins would be tagged with the "contaminated" stickers.

At the same time, common sense and neighborliness are outside of Streets & San's control.

Notes on Blue Carts telling rogues to stop using the bins. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

The department can't force people to break down boxes in order to keep bins from overflowing, same as it can't police every dog walker who dumps bags of poop in a recycling cart.

"We have all sorts of issues in our alleys," Sauve said.

People could keep carts behind a locked fence or in a garage, but that only increases the chance of forgetfulness and a missed pickup, he noted.

"Sometimes it's nearly impossible to zero in on or solve the problem," he said. "We do try to address neighbor-on-neighbor issues. If it gets to the point where a ward superintendent needs to go out ... we'll take those steps."

The city's two-tiered collection system — multi-unit buildings of more than four stories have to contract with private haulers — creates additional tension.

Though there's an ordinance on the books that requires an "effective recycling program" in high-density residential buildings, lack of enforcement has been an issue. Absent a program in their own building, some tenants turn to dumping their paper and plastic into neighbors' bins.

Sauve urged renters to "put pressure" on their landlords to offer recycling. He added that Streets & San is working to strengthen the recycling ordinance to increase compliance.

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