Council votes to crack the whip on high-rises that don’t recycle

SHARE Council votes to crack the whip on high-rises that don’t recycle

Fines as high as $5,000 per offense for buildings that don’t recycle were approved Wednesday over the strenuous objections of building owners. | Sun-Times file photo

Residential and commercial high-rises may soon pay through the nose for violating Chicago’s 20-year-old recycling requirement.

The City Council made certain of it Wednesday, over the strenuous objections of building owners who claim fines as high as $5,000 per offense are too steep.

Earlier this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel rewrote the ordinance on the fly in a failed attempt to appease building owners and the aldermen who represent them.

He added a “30-day warning of noncompliance.” Only after that ultimatum is delivered would the 30-day clock start ticking on hefty new fines — ranging from $500 to $5,000 per offense — against residential and commercial high-rises where recycling is not provided or where residents don’t comply.

The warning period was not enough to appease the 14,000-member Chicago Association of Realtors.

Spokesman Brian Bernardoni branded the penalties “unduly onerous” at a time when building owners are bearing the brunt of a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction and bracing for an additional $250 million property tax increase for teacher pensions.

“We’re scared of the unintended consequences of small landlords getting hit with huge fines,” Bernardoni said.

Noting that the penalties “compound on a daily basis,” Bernardoni said, “$25,000 on a 25-unit building could easily happen because a tenant had an issue. They decided to raise that question. And the city would have no other recourse [but] to actually enforce the ordinance.”

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) said he is a “big supporter of recycling.” But he argued that “the margins these landlords are making are not large enough” to justify such hefty fines.

“My guy goes out and writes the ticket. The next week, same thing happens. He writes another ticket. And it just keeps going on. I, as a landlord, now have to pay that big fine and more fines and more fines. I just can’t see that,” Cochran said.

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams noted that over the last 10 years the city has issued only 197 citations against commercial and residential high-rises that do not offer recycling.

In other words, the goal is to work with building owners to boost recycling not issue fines.

“Someone has to be accountable. And it has to rest with the landlord. [But] issuing a citation, that’s our last resort. That’s where we get no communication whatsoever. We can’t get any cooperation whatsoever,” Williams said.

“Allowing a 30-day period for a warning just emphasizes we’re trying to get compliance. We want folks to recycle. Whether you live in a high-rise or you live in a residential building. The city does not lose. You don’t lose. No one loses if you recycle. That’s the focus.”

The mayor’s plan to amend Chicago’s 20-year-old recycling ordinance is a response to a barrage of complaints from high-rise residents who claim their buildings don’t offer any recycling at all.

The ordinance approved Wednesday spells out the specific responsibilities of building owners and adds enforcement tools to the city’s arsenal.

It would require property owners of multi-unit residential, office and commercial buildings to provide “source-separated, single-stream recycling.”

That means recyclables need to be separated from normal waste and remain segregated until pickups arranged and paid for by the buildings. That’s described as the most commonly used collection method in the industry.

Property owners would also be responsible for educating tenants and leaseholders. That campaign must include posting signs, providing adequate carts and sending written notice to tenants about the change and the recycling expected of them.

Streets and Sanitation will be responsible for enforcement, armed with a sliding scale of fines.

Penalties include $500 to $1,000 for the first offense; $1,000 to $2,500 for second offense within 12 months; and $2,500 to $5,000 for the third violation and any ones after that within 12 months of the most recent violation.

Earlier this month, Williams was asked how he plans to persuade entire high-rise buildings to recycle when the city can’t get single-family homeowners to recycle in some Chicago neighborhoods.

“What we’re hoping here is that people voluntarily do that. The key there is making sure that the buildings are providing them the opportunity to do so. If it’s provided, they’ll take advantage of it,” he said.

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