DOWNTOWN — Chicago is really struggling with recycling, according to a new report.
The city recycles less than 10 percent of its waste, much less than is recycled in surrounding cities and nationally, according to a report released this week from the Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. But the group suggested composting and laws that cut down on plastic use could make a big difference.
Chicago’s recycling rate was just 8.81 percent in 2018, according to the city. In comparison, Cook County suburbs had a recycling rate of 19 percent. The United States’ recycling rate was 35.2 percent in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The recycling rate is defined by how much waste is recycled out of the total waste generated. Other countries, like Germany and Switzerland, regularly recycle more than half their waste.
We weren’t always this bad. In 2014, the first full year the blue cart program was rolled out across all of Chicago, 11.08 percent of the city’s garbage was sent to recycling facilities instead of landfill, according to city data.
In 2015, the rate of recycling diverted from landfills dropped to 10.23 percent.
And through three quarters of 2016, the rate had dipped to 9.09 percent.
For comparison, San Francisco claims an 80 percent diversion rate via combined recycling and composting programs (a highly disputed figure that some say is closer to 60 percent). Seattle diverts just shy of 60 percent of its garbage.
Chicago’s — and the United States’ — recycling rate is so low for a variety of reasons: People lack opportunities to recycle and compost; people use more plastic, which is difficult to recycle, than they did in the past; and there aren’t always markets for recycled goods, among other things, according to the research group.
The report suggests lawmakers mandate new products contain a certain percentage of recycled material and politicians should pass laws that make a product’s manufacturer responsible for dealing with the waste of that product.
The group also said creating a composting system and banning food waste from landfills would help up Chicago’s recycling game.
But the report notes recycling is just the “third best option” when it comes to trying to help the environment: Reducing and reusing material are better.
To improve on those fronts, the city could require sit-down restaurants to use reusable plates and encourage people to use reusable bags and bottles with rebates, according to the report.
Right to Repair Laws would also help. This would enable people to fix products themselves or take them to independent repair shops rather than having to junk a broken item or take it in for potentially costly repairs, according to the group. Sometimes manufacturers make it impossible for someone to fix pricey machines, like farming equipment, without taking it back to the manufacturer and paying a lot. These laws would prohibit companies from these practices.
And to reduce how much people are using overall, the city could ban unnecessary single-use plastics like bags and Styrofoam food containers; require restaurants only give out single-use plastic items like straws, utensils and condiment packets upon request from a customer; and create programs that charge consumers less if they throw out less trash, according to the group.
The Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund is a non-profit, non-partisan group that researches issues in the public interest.
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