LINCOLN SQUARE — The Department of Streets and Sanitation is switching from the stick to the carrot in its latest recycling education campaign.
Say so long to the orange "sticker of shame," used to mark blue carts contaminated with unacceptable materials (items that often cause the entire load to be treated as trash). Say hello to the "Oops" tag, expected to roll out later this summer.
The new, friendlier communication is part of Streets & San's ongoing efforts to increase the number of people participating, correctly, in the city's blue cart recycling program.
Chicago's recycling rate has never quite rebounded from the dip it took in early 2016 when Streets & San began enforcing a policy requiring the loose disposal of recyclables, as opposed to bundling items in a plastic or paper bag.
The bagless rule caused some people to stop recycling altogether. "It's too complicated" was a common complaint, and plenty of others simply ignored the new policy.
Recyclables bundled in plastic bags remain the biggest cause of contaminants, according to Chris Sauve, director of recycling for Streets & San.
A reusable canvas "buddy bag" tote, introduced late last year with a goal of weaning people off plastic, "hasn't been the sea change we were looking for," Sauve said.
In conjunction with the nonprofit organization the Recycling Partnership, which helps municipalities improve their recycling programs, Streets & San identified the contamination sticker as an underused education opportunity.
(The Recycling Partnership's resources and expertise are being paid for courtesy of funding from Coca-Cola and Target, not taxpayers, according to Sara McGann, Streets & San spokeswoman.)
Suave said numerous people had complained that the orange sticker looked like a parking ticket and had a shameful "scarlet letter" feel to it.
The dangling "Oops" tag will not only soften the blow but contains check boxes, which collection crews will mark to identify the specific contaminant in the cart, be it clothing, wood, food, plastic bags, etc.
"Correct this, and we will collect next time," the tag reads.
Equally important, the flip side of the tag includes a thank-you message to acknowledge people's effort and a reminder of which items can be tossed in the blue cart.
"We always want to come back to what we do accept," Sauve said.
On the advice of the Recycling Partnership, Streets & San will test two versions of the "Oops" tag. One will, as referenced above, be used on bins containing any type of contaminant. The other will be deployed on a single collection route, and will only be used to tag carts guilty of bagged recyclables.
The goal is to see whether tackling a single contaminant at a time yields better results than all contaminants at once, Sauve said.
That test will run for three months, and Streets & San already has established a baseline for carts containing bagged recyclables on the designated route.
"We want to see how much we move the needle," Sauve said.
The Recycling Partnership is also helping Streets & San collect data on what materials are being tossed into blue carts versus the black garbage carts. Maybe Chicagoans have cardboard down cold but continue to be stymied by metals. Maybe too much recyclable plastic is winding up in the trash.
"Those are numbers we've never had," Sauve said, and will help Streets & San further refine its messaging.
In addition to the "Oops" tag, the latest recycling campaign will include educational postcards sent to each blue cart household, which should start hitting mailboxes within days, McGann said.
Pubic service announcements will begin running on digital billboards the first week of July, with imagery designed to promote recycling as part of daily life. Ads also will appear on CTA placards and city information panels, she said.
A social media component will encourage Chicagoans to become recycling ambassadors, and a culminating event, still in the planning stages, is in the works for late summer.
"We didn't mean to frustrate people," McGann said. "We hope they come back."