Chicago needs to get a lot better at recycling

Report offers recommendations. Now the city must act.

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A new report gives dozens of ways the city can improve its recycling program.

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Chicago needs to step up its game on recycling.

A report released on Wednesday included important recommendations aimed at boosting recycling in Chicago. We hope the city does all that and more.

Chicago generates more than 4 million tons of waste every year, and it needs to get much better at recycling as much of that as it can. Last fall, officials said the city’s recycling efforts diverted between 8% and 9% of the trash produced every year from landfills, compared with 76.4% in Los Angeles. And for Chicago, that was an improvement on its historically feeble efforts.

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Clearly, Chicago needs to rev up its recycling program. In a hurry.

The recommendations, released on Wednesday by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in partnership with the Delta Institute, included 63 recommendations that would cut landfill costs, contaminate fewer recyclables, prevent some communities from becoming dumping grounds for waste and provide other benefits.

We’re glad the city is thinking seriously about improving its recycling. We can’t overstate how critical that is. But the more important step is to moving beyond the studies and get the job done.

The Delta Institute report includes such ideas as moving to “multistream” recycling, in which residents sort items into separate bins; re-establishing the city’s Department of Environment; setting up a central website or app for Chicagoans to opt out of unwanted mail; establishing “repair cafes” to keep bulk items like appliances, e-waste and textiles out of curbside recycling and waste streams; recycling and reuse of construction and demolition debris, and setting up drop-off locations for yard waste and food scraps. 

Other initiatives are underway already. To help cut down on the amount of waste in Chicago, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) in the coming week will introduce a new version of an ordinance he introduced last year to reduce the amount of foam containers and single-use plastics generated by food service in Chicago. Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) have introduced a narrower ordinance that would ban the automatic distribution of single-use plastic foodware in restaurants. The Council didn’t enact Waguespack’s original ordinance because of concerns about the capability of restaurants to comply during the pandemic. Now it’s time for the council to pass it.

The state needs to step it up too

Chicago, and the rest of Illinois, could use help from the Legislature. On Tuesday, Maine’s governor signed the first law in the nation that requires packaging producers to be financially responsible for recycling their products. Large packaging producers will be responsible for collecting and recycling cardboard boxes, plastic containers and other packaging materials. They also will be responsible for disposing of non-recyclable packaging.

In Illinois, manufacturers recover and recycle some electronic items and thermostats with mercury switches. But manufacturers don’t do that for packaging materials. Enacting a law similar to Maine’s would go a long way toward boosting the amount of recycled materials. The city should not be responsible for manufacturers’ waste.

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The Legislature also could enact a bottle deposit law similar to the 45-year-old law in Michigan. Michigan requires a 10-cent deposit on beverage containers that is refunded when the containers are returned for recycling. On Tuesday, Colorado banned polystyrene packaging and single-use plastic bags starting in 2024, with exemptions. When it convenes, the General Assembly should take steps to reduce the amount of waste generated in Illinois.

More officials across the country are coming to grips with the realization that more waste needs to be recycled or reused. On Thursday, the national Recycling Is Infrastructure Too Campaign issued its own list of 50 recommendations for reducing waste, encouraging reuse of products, and boosting recycling and composting.

Chicago has a long way to go to have a robust recycling program. The important thing is to get started now.

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