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Changes coming to improve Chicago recycling program stuck at 8% to 9%

“One of the bigger things that we need to do and need to incorporate is more organics, more composting,” Deputy Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Chris Sauve told aldermen Friday.

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.
New three-year contracts for recycling will be awarded effective Jan. 1.
Sun-Times file

Chicago’s dismal 8% or 9% recycling rate could “double overnight” if organics and yard waste were added to the mix, aldermen were told Friday.

Testifying virtually at City Council budget hearings, Deputy Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Chris Sauve said changes are coming to a recycling program that has been stuck in the mud for years.

Recycling contracts with Waste Management and SIMS Metal Management that expired years ago, only to be extended a year at a time, have finally been re-bid. The deadline is Nov. 30.

New three-year contracts will be awarded, effective Jan. 1, complete with rigorous reporting requirements and penalties for missed pickups.

At the same time, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has asked the Delta Institute to study waste and recycling practices in other major cities and propose a “checklist of things that have been successful elsewhere.”

On Friday, Sauve gave aldermen a bit of a preview.

“One of the bigger things that we need to do and need to incorporate is more organics, more composting. That would almost immediately double the [recycling] number overnight,” said Sauve, who is spearheading the city’s recycling efforts.

“Food scrap collection is probably the next big thing most people are looking at. … Ideas like that are ... what Delta’s review is gonna inform us on. … The thing that’s been trending the last year or so has been the area of plastics. What plastics are acceptable and not acceptable?”

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully said Chicago’s “biggest contaminants are yard waste and plastics that cannot be recycled.”

“The other issue is the way we pick up garbage in Chicago. The fact that we pick up mattresses and anything that’s left outside of the cart — that’s all included in our total waste stream,” Tully said.

“So when you take your recyclables as a percentage of that total waste stream, obviously we don’t like where we’re at.”

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) threw in a few ideas of his own.

In January, he proposed Chicago restaurants and carryout places be prohibited from using foam containers and provide plastic straws and food utensils only on request to curb “plastic pollution.”

Waguespack has also urged the Lightfoot administration to consider replacing Chicago’s $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee with a volume-based fee that gives people a financial incentive to recycle. That four-year-old fee is now under review as part of the Delta Institute study. It doesn’t come close to recouping the city’s refuse collection costs, aldermen were told.

“We contaminate a lot of stuff because we throw it all into the same bin. … Have we looked at breaking that up into different color-coded cans like they do in other cities? Have we looked at maybe a deposit program where we can take out a good portion of the bottles or cans like they do in other states?” Waguespack said.

Sauve assured aldermen that all ideas are on the table. He and Tully all but ruled out only one possibility: Bringing the entire recycling operation back in house. That would force the city to hire 90 additional crews and buy new trucks at a cost of $29.5 million, they said.

City employees handle pickups in two of the city’s six recycling sections.

Chicago’s long-running struggle with recycling was compounded by the fact that the market for recyclables “hit bottom in late 2018 and early 2019,” Sauve said. It’s now poised for a comeback next year with “even more capacity locally to process recyclables.”

“It means that programs like the one that we have isn’t reliant on sending materials overseas. You’re gonna have much more support locally for programs that help with processing of materials that, in the past, has challenges within the marketplace,” Sauve said.

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.

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

While the volume of garbage collected by city crews is up 10% since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Sauve said the number of carts tagged as contaminated is down from 23,000 last year to 9,000 this year.