Without supervision, recycling goes rogue

The color blue typically suggests recycling, but Republic Services, a private waste and recycling hauler, uses blue bins for everything. (Kristine Sherred/MEDILL)

By Kristine Sherred
Medill Reports

The city imposed a strict recycling ordinance last summer but forgot about enforcing it.

Chicago has struggled to be green since 1995, when new rules first required businesses and large apartment buildings to begin a modest recycling effort through private haulers. In 2017, the city expects these same buildings to recycle full-stop.

The problem: no one is checking.

“We’re relying on occupants to call in,” said Department of Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Sara McGann. “We’re not out there looking for businesses or buildings that are not in compliance, and hopefully we don’t have to get to that point.”

Chicago’s dismal 10-percent recycling rate, according to city data on residential recycling, is worse than it was before 2007, and is “significantly less than most other major cities,” said Alderman Scott Waguespack, whose 32nd Ward houses parts of Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Lakeview and Logan Square. “The lack of attention, implementation and focus on this problem is disheartening,” he said.

Waste bins collide in a downtown alley, and their resemblance to recycling bins makes it difficult to decipher which is which. (Kristine Sherred/MEDILL)

Streets and Sanitation services only residential buildings of four or fewer units — those equipped with blue carts, the city’s small-residence recycling program that launched in 2007. It was not fully implemented until 2013. Larger residences and commercial buildings must contract waste and recycling services through private companies including Waste Management, Independent Recycling Services and Lakeshore Recycling Services.

McGann said the goal of the more stringent ordinance is to encourage recycling, not to rack up fines.

If the department discovers a building is failing to recycle, it gives the landlord a warning. Upon follow-up inspection 30 days later, no recycling bin means a $500 to $1,000 fine. Fail again, and landlords can owe up to $5,000 per offense.

“If someone is resistant, this gives us pretty hefty fines to impose on them,” she said. For those who “don’t believe in the mission of recycling, they just have no choice.”

Her department wants building owners “who feel in the dark to call and get in compliance,” but she admits the department has not reached out to them.

“It needs to be on our to-do list,” she said.

A plastic bag full of Popeye’s trash, including a recyclable plastic San Pellegrino bottle, spills out of a recycling bin. This bin might be littered with other non-recyclable items. (Kristine Sherred/MEDILL)

Carter O’Brien, head of the nonprofit educational group Chicago Recycling Coalition and sustainability officer at the Field Museum, called the enforcement mechanism “inherently screwy.”

The health and building departments routinely visit businesses. Even the fire department visits businesses more often than Streets and Sanitation.

The city would not budge, he said.

At The Radler, a four-year-old German beer hall in Logan Square, owner Adam Hebert said he has not received much information from the city about existing or updated recycling requirements. The restaurant’s private hauler, Waste Management, has charged him about $3,000 extra in three years “from people throwing trash in our recycling.”

Like any business or residence in Chicago, The Radler shares an alley with other buildings that might not share its support for recycling.

Hebert recalls one instance when the hauler discovered construction materials in the recycling bin (“how did a toilet and a bunch of 2-by-4’s end up in there?!”).

O’Brien said last year’s recycling debate failed to address the nuances of large buildings, especially mixed-use. Despite the occasional tenant complaint, he said, “there’s not necessarily a lot of fear” driving landlords to recycle.

Realtor groups — those most affected (on paper, anyway) by the fear of heavier fines — lobbied the City Council to add the 30-day warning period.

Brian Bernardoni, senior director of government affairs at the Chicago Association of Realtors, said the group of landlords discusses their cooperation with Streets and Sanitation officials at the top of every meeting.

This cart from Republic Services, a private waste hauler, resembles what the city gives to small residential buildings as part of its Blue Cart program. (Kristine Sherred/MEDILL)

“We’re very satisfied with how the industry is working with them and more importantly how the city is working with the industry,” he said.

Spurred by residents’ 311 complaints, Streets and Sanitation inspected 274 buildings from January to August, according to logs obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Chicago Recycling Coalition. This number pales in comparison to the thousands of buildings the city boasts on its website.

More than 7,300 restaurants, 200 galleries and 200 museums — all examples of commercial buildings — already call the city home, while high-rise construction continues to boom.

Alderman Waguespack sees the 311 call-in system as decent but not ample for a city of nearly 3 million people.

Streets and Sanitation should be “the driving force behind compliance and not relying solely on residents to carry out their city duties,” he said.

In the 47th Ward, where many of those calls originated, program coordinator Brad Gregorka said ward residents often find tiny bins for huge buildings.

“I don’t know how you police it,” The Radler’s Hebert conceded.

“There’s so much b*****it you go through just to stay alive every day. Big picture I can see why the city isn’t terribly worried about it.” -Adam Hebert

McGann said her department plans to educate private haulers and increase coordination with the building and business affairs departments, but O’Brien sees the disconnect between building owner and tenant as the opaque problem.

“What’s the next level of granularity?” he asked. “We got recycling, but it’s woefully insufficient — we’ve heard this. You address the building owner, but it doesn’t translate to the occupant.”

Hebert also sees education as the biggest hurdle.

“Rather than pay a guy to write tickets,” he said, “how do we spend money on educating businesses to recycle better?”

Photo at top: The color blue typically suggests recycling, but Republic Services, a private waste and recycling hauler, uses blue bins for everything. (Kristine Sherred/MEDILL)