Lightfoot to launch waste management study, hopes to find way to improve Chicago’s dismal recycling rate

It’s not clear if the study will look at replacing Chicago’s $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee with a volume-based fee that gives people a financial incentive to recycle. But one of the mayor’s closest City Council allies said it should.

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Garbage bins in a Chicago alley

A study on garbage pickup in Chicago should also include a close look at replacing the city’s flat collection fee with one based on weight, because that would encourage recycling, one alderman says.

Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has asked the Department of Streets and Sanitation to launch a waste management study of “best practices from across the country” to find a way to improve Chicago’s dismal 9% recycling rate.

Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Marjani Williams said recycling is a “key component” in efforts to make Chicago more sustainable. The nationwide study, she added, would examine “global changes in recycling patterns” and the re-sale market for recyclables.

The department “is working to identify best practices from across the country that will help strengthen the Blue Cart Recycling Program and the city’s waste management system,” Williams wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“Future recycling contracts are still under development and will be going through the procurement process in 2020. ... We are still working to determine the changes that will be made to the program and contracts.”

Recycling contracts with Waste Management and SIMS Metal Management expired years ago and have been extended, repeatedly, a year at a time.

Williams refused to say whether the city would consider ending managed competition and bringing recycling back in house. Nor would she say if the waste management study would also examine the possibility of replacing Chicago’s $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee with a volume-based fee.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), Lightfoot’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, said both changes should be on the table.

“No one has looked at this comprehensively. Whenever we asked the last administration, it was, ‘Go fish.’ Or, `No, no. It’s gonna be more costly.’ I want to see actual data. It’s imperative for the mayor to take the lead on this. If not her, then we will,” Waguespack told the Sun-Times.

The $9.50-a-month garbage fee tacked onto water bills was the most controversial element of a tax-laden 2016 budget that also included a $588 million property tax increase that was the largest in Chicago history.

Some aldermen were so concerned the garbage fee could escalate that then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed to cap it at $9.50 per household until after the 2019 election and put all revenue from the fee in a separate enterprise fund.

Now that the cap has expired, Lightfoot is free to go in a different direction — and she should, Waguespack said.

“People have been really upset about that. They’re saying, `I barely put anything in my black bin. I recycle. And you’re still charging me what the guy next door who’s dumping everything into his black bin” is paying, Waguespack said.

“Does your neighbor walk in and dump stuff into your bin when there’s overflows? Do you get charged for it? That probably is gonna be the biggest hurdle. But they’re gonna have to figure out how to hold people accountable about that.”

For years, Chicago aldermen and the Illinois Environmental Council have demanded a review of managed competition, which has allowed Waste Management to mark blue recycling carts as contaminated — even though that company has a “financial incentive to divert” the contents of those recycling bins to landfills they own and operate.

When recycling carts are slapped with “contaminated” stickers, Waste Management bypasses the carts but is still paid recycling fees; city crews pick up the contaminated bins, meaning Chicago taxpayers pay twice.

In 2018, the Better Government Association disclosed that 514,239 of the recycling bins branded as “grossly contaminated” were tagged by Waste Management.

If Lightfoot switches to a volume-based garbage collection fee, it could be a lucrative revenue source as well as a financial incentive for Chicagoans to recycle.

Nine years ago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson estimated a volume-based, annual fee of $100 for every 96-gallon cart used could generate up to $125 million a year. That’s even if the fee triggered a 17% reduction in household waste.

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