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Some Chicago Neighborhoods Barely Recycle, Can New Program Change That?

By Patty Wetli | March 30, 2017 6:12am | Updated on April 3, 2017 8:29am
 By essentially re-introducing recycling to target households, the city hopes to double participation.
By essentially re-introducing recycling to target households, the city hopes to double participation.
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City of Chicago

SOUTH SHORE — Can an education blitz boost recycling rates?

That's what a new pilot program on the Far South Side aims to find out.

The Department of Streets and Sanitation is partnering with Waste Management on the three-month trial, which involves 1,700 households in the 7th Ward.

The chosen area is not quite the worst in Chicago in terms of recycling participation rates, but it has one of the lowest, hovering at 6 percent, said Chris Sauve, Streets & San's director of recycling.

The pilot program has two goals:

• Double the volume of recyclables collected (a baseline was established prior to launch).

• Cut the area's contamination rate in half from the current 30 percent.

How does the city intend to help residents reach these targets?

By hitting the reset button and essentially reintroducing the blue cart recycling program.

Targeted households all received a letter informing them of the pilot program. The key component of that communication was the inclusion of an easy-to-read flier printed with images that illustrate recycling do's and don'ts — heavy on the do's, Sauve said.

The message is, "Let's concentrate on the things you should throw in there — stick with that and you'll be doing great," he said.

Flier distributed by Streets & San. [Provided]

The pilot launched with a community meeting that served as a "Recycling 101" presentation, with officials from Streets & San on hand to answer questions and reinforce the simple mantra of "paper, glass bottles, plastic containers and aluminum cans."

"Keep it simple," Sauve stressed.

Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) said he will include the recycling tips in his e-newsletter, post them at his ward office and share them with the leaders of the ward's 80-plus block clubs.

"Every avenue at our disposal, we're going to use it," Mitchell said.

"A lot of our people really do try," he said, but confusion over what is and isn't recyclable persists.

"One lady asked about shampoo bottles," Mitchell said. "There's apprehension — 'I don't know if it's OK' — so they throw it away."

Another issue raised by residents at the community forum: people dumping garbage in a neighbor's recycling cart, Mitchell said.

Among the ways he plans to attack that problem is to make sure the ward's commercial properties have enough dumpsters so people don't use others' blue bins, the alderman said.

One-on-one communication with residents is also part of the pilot's strategy.

The ward's Streets & San superintendent will personally visit people whose recycling carts have been tagged as contaminated and explain which item(s) aren't accepted by the city's program.

"This is an unfiltered way of talking to customers," Sauve said.

The intention is for these conversations to answer a question that's plagued Streets & San: "What can we do better to get you take part?"

Michelle Thoma, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, applauded the pilot's effort at education, with a caveat:

"It should have been done in 2013," Thoma said.

"I'm heartened if the plan is to provide education materials that are clear to folks," she said. "It's just ... these limited efforts stop. We need continuing education. The program really requires consistency and clear messaging. To me, it's more about the consistency and the frequency."

Stickers on the blue carts, which demonstrate what is and isn't accepted, shouldn't be doing the heavy lifting in terms of communication, Thoma said.

That information should be plastered everywhere — including CTA trains and buses — as part of a sustained ad campaign, she said.

Beyond do's and don'ts, Thoma said people need to understand the benefits of recycling.

"Make it about caring for our neighborhoods and creating jobs," she said.

Indeed, brainstorming sessions led by the Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network in partnership with Streets & San identified some of the same solutions as Thoma for increasing recycling rates.

The city, Sauve said, is awaiting final recommendations from the network in terms of which suggestions have the greatest chance for success.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Thoma said the answer could be as simple as revisiting popular environmental campaigns from the past.

"'Give a hoot, don't pollute' worked for me," she said. "I'm remembering it all these years later."