Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams on Tuesday shot down fines as a solution to Chicago’s anemic recycling rates in favor of a back-to-basics campaign that simplifies recycling.
“We have a lot of people who recycle. They’re just not recycling correctly,” Williams told aldermen during budget hearings.
“It’s a behavioral change in some respects. But I know we can do better, which will drive that disposal cost down. If I can just go up 3 percentage points in recycling, I would have more than adequate money. . . . to purchase another . . . $500,000 worth of carts” to reduce a monthslong backlog to replace broken or damaged carts.
The campaign is tailor-made to boost a recycling rate that has dropped to just 4.5 percent on the Southeast Side and 9 percent citywide since the rules were changed to “Go Bagless.”
It simplifies the rules by asking Chicagoans to recycle only three categories of items: paper, aluminum and plastic.
The city has also tested a new system for tagging carts to better explain which prohibited items were inside.
Williams noted that the “market is way down” for recycled materials and that Chicago is not alone in its recycling struggles.
New York, Philadelphia and Washington are having similar problems. China recently stopped accepting certain recyclables because the market is “so far down,” Williams said.
“We want to concentrate on those items where there is a market: your plastic containers, your cans, your paper. We want to concentrate on the main items that you can in fact sell, so that when that market begins to turn around and goes back up, we’re there,” Williams said.
“You can’t quit because the markets are down. If anything, you need to double-down . . . so that, when the market turns around, you’re there. . . . At some point, the price of oil is gonna go up. The minute the price of oil goes up, suddenly plastics become expensive,” he said. “Recycling will be back in.”
Under questioning Tuesday from Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Williams shot down the idea of lighting a fire under recalcitrant Chicago homeowners by fining those who refuse to recycle.
“Somebody walks down the alley. They’ve got a cheeseburger. They want to get rid of it. They happen to throw it in a blue cart instead of a black cart. They just contaminated that entire cart. It would be wrong to penalize that homeowner who may have no knowledge of that whatsoever,” he said.
Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), a former deputy commissioner at Streets and San, noted that there are some parts of his Southwest Side ward where the blue recycling cart is “used as an extra garbage cart.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) complained about the large number of garbage carts being tagged as contaminated and bypassed by Waste Management recycling crews, forcing city crews to make the pickup. That forces Chicago taxpayers to pay twice.
“The complaint that we get from a lot of people is that they watch Waste Management go down the alley and tag cans, barely even looking into them,” Waguespack said. “The number is astronomical. I can’t believe how many carts they’re tagging. And then, the bins sit there until one of our trucks can come and get it.”
Williams said he’s heard that complaint before.
“Is it possible that they may have some issues with some of their employees? It’s not impossible. It’s something we’ll have to take a look at. But at the same time, they’re also partnering with us to try and improve recycling. So, there is some effort there on their part,” the commissioner said.
Also during Tuesday’s hearing, Williams made his annual claim about being ready for anything this winter, with 370,000 tons of salt on hand.
He also shot down feral cats as a solution to the city’s never-ending rat problem.
“You’re putting an animal into an environment to get rid of an animal. It may get rid of that other animal. But then you’re stuck with that animal,” he said. “Plus, the feral cats can be somewhat aggressive. I wouldn’t want the city to be associated with putting an aggressive animal on the street that could end up harming someone’s child.”