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New Streets and San boss proposes adding 10-cent deposit on bottles and cans

Newly appointed Commissioner Cole Stallard told the Sun-Times that bottle deposits “work in other locations” to boost recycling and “shift responsibility to manufacturers ... [to] use plastics that are sustainable.”

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Cole Stallard
Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Cole Stallard
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s newly appointed Streets and Sanitation commissioner on Friday embraced the idea of adding a 10-cent deposit to the cost of bottles and cans to reduce the mountain of plastics and other containers overwhelming landfills.

“It works in other locations. … It shifts responsibility to manufacturers,” Cole Stallard told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“You’re putting all of these different water bottles, pop bottles, detergent, cups, straws [into landfills]. Where does it stop? ... It’s time that these manufacturers using all of these things ... that fill up landfills just work with folks like us and explore different options.”

Stallard fondly recalled the pocket change he earned as a kid after returning empty glass bottles of Coca-Cola to the grocery store in his Southeast Side neighborhood.

“That was kind of an allowance for us. My mom would say, ‘Wash out the pop bottles because I don’t want to have ants all over the basement, and you take ’em back. I would take ’em back to the store, get my 80 cents and end up spending half of it in the store. It worked all the way around,” the new commissioner said.

Earlier this year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a long-awaited report on Chicago’s waste stream tailor-made to reduce the volume of garbage and improve the city’s dismal recycling rates.

The bottle deposit was one of 63 strategic recommendations made by the Delta Institute aimed at easing the burden on Chicago taxpayers by reducing landfill costs, minimizing contamination of recyclables, increasing diversion and confronting environmental inequities that have turned the Southeast Side into a dumping ground.

“Michigan’s Bottle Deposit Law, enacted in 1976, established a 10-cent deposit on beverage containers. The deposit is refunded upon returning the empty container to a participating retailer for recycling. Over $338 million in refunds were processed in 2019, representing an 88.7 percent refund rate,” the report stated.

The report also recommended that Chicago consider providing collection of food waste and other organic waste material for all residents served by the Department of Streets and Sanitation who opt-in.

Stallard embraced that suggestion as well, even though it would require separate trucks.

In fact, he said the new “micro-collection” system is “on the top of our list,” and he’s planning to start small, using “one to two trucks” on the Southwest Side.

“It’s a pilot program. We want to see how it goes. How many residents are actually gonna buy in? We’re gonna really put some effort into that,” Stallard said.

“It’s something we’re really excited about. It’s just less going to the landfill. ... I grew up by a landfill. I saw the landfill grow as a kid over on the Southeast Side. I get it.”

Stallard acknowledged that Chicago’s $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee only covers 25% of the city’s collection costs.

But he’s not about to recommend the mayor raise the fee or switch to a volume-based garbage collection fee before exploring a host of other options to boost the city’s dismal, 8% recycling rate.

In 2011, departing Inspector General Joe Ferguson estimated a volume-based, annual fee of $100 for every 96-gallon cart used could generate as much as $125 million a year. That’s even if the fee triggered a 17% reduction in the amount of household waste.

“I want to look at every possible option before we go to the people and ask for more money. We’re literally trying every possible thing to get this number up, and we’re gonna do it before we hit people with another dollar,” Stallard said.

“That’s the easy way out. We’re not about the easy way out in this department. Let’s continue to see what we can do on our end.”

Stallard is a Streets and Sanitation “lifer” who worked his way up through the ranks and earned the right to replace retired Commissioner John Tully.

With snow season weeks away, Stallard pleaded for patience in advance when it comes to side street snow removal.

He dismissed a pair of suggestions made almost annually to confront the perennial problem: alternate side of the street parking and privatizing side street snow removal.

“I would put this group up against anybody in the country, in the world for that matter. That’s how confident I feel about snow,” Stallard said.

“This is kind of like the pride of our department. They hit us with a blizzard, you’re getting to work the next day. It’s all because of these folks behind the wheels,” and he’s not about to take that responsibility away from them.