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Chicago's Bad Recycling Gets Worse: Only 10 Percent Diverted From Landfill

By Patty Wetli | November 21, 2016 5:38am
 Chicago's diversion rate is a fraction of other cities', how can Streets & San increase involvement?
Chicago's diversion rate is a fraction of other cities', how can Streets & San increase involvement?
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

IRVING PARK — Chicagoans create nearly a million tons of waste a year, but only 10 percent of it gets recycled and kept out of landfills.

And that percentage is going down, not up.

In 2014, the first full year the blue cart program was rolled out across all of Chicago, 11.08 percent of the city's garbage was sent to recycling facilities instead of landfill, according to city data.

In 2015, the rate of recycling diverted from landfills dropped to 10.23 percent.

And through three quarters of 2016, the rate has dipped to 9.09 percent.

For comparison, San Francisco claims an 80 percent diversion rate via combined recycling and composting programs (a highly disputed figure that some say is closer to 60 percent). Seattle diverts just shy of 60 percent of its garbage.

Even at its lowest point, back in 2003, Seattle's diversion rate was still 20 percentage points higher than Chicago's top performing North Side recycling "zone" — there are six in the city — which diverts 18 percent of waste.

And then there's Sweden, which is so good at recycling, the country has to import trash to fuel its waste-to-energy plants.

What gives, Chicago?

That's what Streets & San is trying to find out.

The department is partnering with the Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network — a non-profit that serves as a sort of middle man between grassroots initiatives and governmental agencies — to address obstacles to recycling and ways to boost participation.

Among the biggest issues is the amount of trash people toss into their blue recycling carts, frequently spoiling all of the recycling in the cart.

Despite Streets & San's recent efforts to communicate no-nos, which include greasy pizza boxes and shredded paper, these items are still finding their way into blue bins, along with chunks of concrete, infant car seats and hypodermic needles, to name a few of the more unusual "contaminants" Streets & San has come across.

The first step to combat the city's recycling problem: The sustainability network hosted a series of community meetings to clarify what is and isn't recyclable, identify the biggest hurdles to recycling correctly, and to brainstorm ideas that could make the program more successful.

The last of those sessions took place last week at Horner Park, with residents attending from across the North Side.

Among participants' suggestions to boost recycling rates:

• Use a carrot instead of stick approach, either in the form of garbage collection rebates or simple gold star stickers for recycling done right.

• Give people a goal to shoot for — divert X percent, beat New York, reduce waste by X pounds per person, etc. — something the entire city can rally around.

• Build interest and excitement either through a catch phrase ("Go Blue") or a major annual event a la Earth Day.

• Schedule robo-calls or robo-texts to remind people of their recycling day.

• Communicate the big picture: How does recycling benefit the environment? How much does the city spend on waste disposal? How much money does recycling save?

• Hammer home simple do's and don't's with larger and friendlier, even cartoonish, graphics or even a jingle.

Logan Square resident Eric Heidbreder, a teaching artist with the Fifth House Ensemble who also writes comedy music, shared his catchy "Recycling Song," which he penned to educate roommates and neighbors about the evils of tossing plastic bags and Starbucks coffee cups into recycling.

"Almost immediately, I saw drastic improvement," Heidbreder told DNAinfo via email.

• Education, education and more education.

To that last point, the forum also included a short "recyclable or not" quiz, as well as a brief Q&A with Chris Sauve, director of recycling for Streets & San.

The quiz revealed that even among Chicagoans keenly interested in recycling, confusion still reigns, with questions about disposable coffee cups, pizza boxes and plastics stumping many of those in attendance.

"I'm learning ways I'm not as effective," said Megan Rhyme of Albany Park.

Uncertainty about recycling rules leads to contamination. The problem reached its peak in February, when Streets & San started cracking down on people placing recyclables in plastic bags, a practice that had been discouraged but never disallowed, Sauve said.

As a result, tens of thousands of blue carts were slapped with orange contamination stickers, Sauve said.

These tagged bins are identified for later pickup by garbage crews, he said, which only adds to the myth that Chicago's recycling program is smoke and mirrors.

"There's still that perception out there that we're collecting [recycling] and dumping it in the lake," Sauve said.

(For the record, that's not what's happening, he said.)

The perception also exists that its OK to mix in recycling with trash because it will be sorted at the processing facility, an assumption that's misguided, he said.

Yes, some recyclables can be separated from waste but "you'd have to have an army of 200 people" to sort the amount of trash Chicagoans lump in with their recyclables, Sauve said.

Beyond the implications of labor costs, recycling facilities aren't set up for massive sorting operations, he said.

They're built to extract materials in a specific way using specific equipment. Rogue contaminants, such as wire clothing hangers or plastic toys, are either impossible to extract or can cause machinery to break, Sauve explained.

Suggestions for boosting recycling rates. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

Among other issues he addressed:

• Why is recycling only collected every other week?

Cost, pure and simple, Sauve said.

The city already spends $20 million annually to operate the blue cart recycling program, which rolled out completely in 2013 and covers 600,000 households — single-family homes and multi-unit buildings of four stories or fewer.

That's $12 million less than the original $32 million estimate, with savings achieved by outsourcing two-thirds of collection to private haulers, Sauve noted.

• Why not fine people who recycle incorrectly?

Given that most recycling bins are in the city's public alleys, it would be difficult to fine a homeowner for trash that a neighbor or passerby might have tossed into the cart, Sauve said.

But some fines are coming in 2017, courtesy of a newly approved ordinance that requires landlords to make recycling available to tenants in large multi-unit buildings.

• Why is Chicago so far behind other major cities when it comes to recycling?

In part because it's so efficient at trash collection, Sauve said.

A person can set out a grand piano in the alley, call for garbage pickup and it will be gone within days, negating any inducement to donate or recycle, he said.

Economics are another reason other cities pulled ahead of Chicago, Sauve said.

It costs Chicago $45 per ton to send waste to landfills, he said. For San Francisco and New York, that figure is more like $140 per ton, creating a far bigger financial incentive to divert as much trash as possible.

David Sopchik of Albany Park said he found the sustainability leaders' session highly informative, particularly the opportunity to speak with Sauve.

Following up with Sauve on the city's 10 percent diversion rate, Sopchik learned a 50 percent rate is realistic.

"There's a lot of good people can do," he said.

Still, Sopchik was concerned meetings like the one at Horner Park were simply a case of preaching to the choir.

"There wasn't anyone here who wasn't engaged," he said, when the real concern is "finding out the reasons behind 'why not.'"

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