City does nothing to punish recycling law-breakers, watchdog finds

The Department of Streets and Sanitation “makes no attempt” to enforce an ordinance requiring businesses, apartments and condos recycle their trash, the city’s inspector general found.

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Overflowing dumpsters.

The city isn’t cracking down on apartment building owners who don’t offer recycling, a watchdog warns.

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If the city is going to improve its dismal rate of recycling, it’s going to have to start following its own law and police businesses, apartment buildings and condo associations, according to a new report.

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, which oversees recycling in addition to trash pickup, does not enforce rules requiring tens of thousands of businesses, apartment buildings or condos to recycle, an audit released Wednesday from City Inspector General Joseph Ferguson found.

Under a city law amended in 2017, buildings that fail to provide recycling service can face fines of $500 to $5,000 a day after an initial warning to comply. The problem is the department “makes no attempt to identify noncompliant commercial or high-density residential buildings,” the report said.

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“The Chicago Recycling Ordinance was amended in 2017 to include stronger enforcement provisions but our audit shows that this responsibility has not been met,” Ferguson said in a statement. 

Rather than identifying buildings that don’t recycle, the department responds to public complaints by sending ward superintendents to inspect them, a strategy that hasn’t resulted in a crackdown on violators, the report said. Ferguson’s office identified 97 complaint-based inspections between January 1, 2017 and December 30, 2019. From those inspections, the department issued three citations, including one for $290. 

The department also doesn’t follow the law to require 15 private trash haulers in the city to fill out reports to make sure recycling is being offered at these buildings. In all, there are about 60,000 businesses in Chicago required to hire private garbage and recycling hauling services. Additionally, there are thousands of residential buildings with five or more units that have similar requirements. Another problem, according to the report, is that the sanitation department does not have a list of which residential buildings are required to recycle. 

“Without enforcement of the ordinance, many of these households and businesses may not be recycling,” the report said, which is unnecessarily filling landfills. Citing figures from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the report said landfills in the Chicago metro area may reach capacity around 2029.

“Recycling reduces the amount of trash sent to landfills, thereby increasing their life expectancies,” the report said. “Recycling also reduces municipalities’ dependence on landfills, thereby reducing the greenhouse gases that landfills emit.” 

Chicago residents have complained to the city for years that landlords were not providing recycling at apartment buildings even though the law required it. In 2015, one resident launched the site to report on derelict landlords or condo associations. In 2019, a Better Government Association investigation found only a tiny fraction of big buildings were even inspected for compliance with the law. A separate BGA investigation a year earlier found that Chicago’s 9% residential recycling rate was the worst in the country among big cities. 

In the Ferguson report, the sanitation department said it was already working with other city departments toward improving its practices. It is also awaiting a comprehensive study of the city’s waste management.

“The study will guide the development of a framework for further improving recycling and waste diversion,” a department spokeswoman said in a statement. 

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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