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How to make Chicago’s recycling better than just garbage in, garbage out

An unmarked contamination tag left on a Blue Cart recycling bin in a city zone serviced by Waste Management. Drivers are supposed to mark on the tag what contaminant they found inside the bin.

An unmarked contamination tag left on recycling bin in a city zone serviced by Waste Management. | Better Government Association

When it comes to recycling in Chicago and Illinois, it’s garbage in, garbage out.

Last month, the Better Government Association’s investigative unit reported that a “managed competition” program being used for residential recycling wasn’t being managed well at all.


The report found neighborhoods on the Northwest, West and Far South sides were 20 times more likely to have their recycling diverted to a landfill. Waste Management handles the recycling pickups in those communities, and Waste Management owns a landfill where much of the contaminated recycling is dumped, giving it a chance to be paid twice: once when its workers label a recycling bin as contaminated and again when it accepts those bins at its dump.

Two private firms and city workers handle garbage pickup and recycling in various neighborhoods, but those serviced by Waste Management are much more likely to have recycling labeled contaminated.

At a budget hearing late last month, Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully told aldermen he would improve language in the private haulers’ contracts and beef up oversight by transferring four sanitation specialists to monitor contractors, streamline the tagging process and work to better train the crews.

Chicago isn’t alone, a new report by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group found. A survey of the state’s largest cities found recycling rates below the national average of 34.7 percent. Chicago had the lowest rate at 9 percent and Naperville had the highest at 30 percent. But the report also revealed that the statewide rate is unknown.

“We don’t have any statewide information because it’s not tracked statewide,” said Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Scarr previously worked in Connecticut and Massachusetts and said those states have 10-year master plans for measuring recycling, setting goals and working to meet them.

It is a practice in other states, Scarr said, and, not surprisingly, other states do better at waste diversion.

“There’s a false sense of security in Illinois that we can just send stuff away,” Scarr added. “We send stuff away to Indiana. We shouldn’t plan on that being the case forever. … We should be reducing, reusing and recycling.”

We also should audit and measure what we’re doing with our garbage and our recycling, both in Chicago and statewide. Somehow, sending out four specialists and promising to change contract language doesn’t seem good enough.

Illinois PIRG, the Chicago Recycling Coalition, the Illinois Environmental Council and the BGA’s policy unit, which operates independently from its investigative unit, all have called for a thorough audit and evaluation of the Chicago recycling program before the private haulers’ contracts expire next July.

The groups called for:

  • An update on the current recycling goals, including the percent of waste the city expects to divert and by what year it will reach that goal.

  • An explanation of the criteria used to evaluate recycling providers.

  • A detailed breakdown of the cost per ton to recycle for each of the providers.

  • The recycling rates in each competitive area.

  • The accumulated results of audits of contaminated bins.

  • A detailed description of the educational recycling programs pursued in each service area.

  • An accounting of any conflicts of interest and incentives the providers might have, and a description of how those conflicts are managed.

Incumbents, aldermanic candidates and mayoral candidates ought to be demanding those steps now.

At the state level, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency ought to be requiring the same kind of uniform analysis of all its major population centers.

This is the kind of accountable and transparent management we should expect from our governments.

“As with anything in life,” Scarr said, “you’re not going to be successful if you don’t have goals and a way to measure those goals.”

We all can quit using plastic bags and give up plastic straws, but if we expect better from our governments and elected officials, we’ll be much more likely to scale up our positive impact.

So, let’s move from “garbage in, garbage out,” to “what’s measured is what’s managed.”

Madeleine Doubek is the vice president of policy for the Better Government Association.