Chicago tries again to boost anemic recycling rates — with carrot, not stick

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Chicago Streets and Sanitation workers put out recycling blue carts for Chicago’s recycling program in the 47th ward West Lakeview neighborhood in July 2007.

The number of people who recycle in Chicago still isn’t what it could be. | Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times file

Chicago is taking another stab at boosting its anemic 10 percent recycling rate by using the carrot, instead of the stick.

Newly-appointed Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully said his goal is to make recycling “as easy as possible” by launching a citywide public education campaign that asks homeowners to recycle only three categories of items: paper, aluminum and plastic.

Last year, Chicago tested the “back-to-basics” campaign to boost a recycling rate that had dropped to just 4.5 percent on the Southeast Side since the rules were changed to “Go Bagless.”

Recycling rules were streamlined for 4,400 participating households and articulated in a “Dear homeowner” letter reinforced during a town hall meeting. When carts were contaminated, reminders were placed on blue recycling carts identifying the prohibited item.

Results were promising. There was a “32 percent decrease in overall contamination” in an area where 80 percent of the households had “some form of plastic wrap or bags in their carts” before the outreach campaign.

Now, City Hall is trying the same approach citywide.

Later this month, all 600,000 households that receive city pick-ups will get a mailer that includes recycling days, reminders about acceptable materials and a link to access recycling information on the internet.

Homeowners can also find their garbage and recycling schedules and sign up for email reminders online at There, they enter their address, then click on the gray “Get my Schedule” button below.

Boosting recycling and minimizing contamination is imperative for Chicago taxpayers — and not simply to reduce waste-hauling and landfill costs.

When homeowners throw in plastic bags, recycling items contained in paper bags or other prohibited items, the cart is tagged and bypassed by private recycling crews. City crews pick up contaminated carts, and the contents end up in the regular garbage. That forces Chicago homeowners — who already pay a $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee — to pay twice.

By opting for public outreach, Tully is following his predecessor’s lead in choosing the carrot instead of the stick.

Former Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams emphatically resisted the idea of lighting a fire under recalcitrant Chicago homeowners by, for instance, fining those who refuse to recycle.

“Somebody walks down the alley. They’ve got a cheeseburger. They want to get rid of it. They happen to throw it in a blue cart instead of a black cart. They just contaminated that entire cart. It would be wrong to penalize that homeowner who may have no knowledge of that whatsoever,” Williams said during his final appearance at City Council budget hearings last year.

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