Recycling and trash bins line an alley in Chicago in April 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Chicago’s wretched recycling rate continued in 2020, but city officials hope a new contract will improve the track record of the private companies hired to handle the bulk of the city’s waste.

The city recycled its waste at a rate of 8-9 percent in 2020, in line with the city’s 8.8 percent rate in 2019 but lagging behind peer cities and national averages. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called for recycling reforms, asking the Department of Streets and Sanitation to commission a study to evaluate the program and look to other cities for best recycling practices.

Findings of that study, along with a new three-year contract with private firms to handle the bulk of collection in the city, could boost the recycling rate in coming years, department officials said at a virtual budget hearing Friday.

The officials offered up several reasons for the city’s dismal recycling rate, but conceded there is room for improvement.

“It’s definitely not what we would expect to see, but this evaluation that we’re conducting with the Mayor’s Office is to develop those priorities and strategies to improve that,” said deputy commissioner Chris Sauve. “And I think one of the bigger things that we need to do is we need to incorporate more organics in composting. That would almost immediately double the number overnight.”

The poor numbers are also a result of simple economics, Sauve argued. The comparatively low cost to dump waste at landfills in the Midwest and low purchase prices for recyclable material worldwide don’t provide the right incentives to recycle more.

“Recycling programs and diversion programs in general have not taken hold or taken root the way they might in a coastal city,” he said. “Those economic costs absolutely drive the recycling programs.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th) said his ward office is “constantly” receiving complaints about Waste Management, a firm that has done a “horrific” job. He urged the department to have city workers handle recycling across the city instead of tapping outside firms.

“I think the department does a really great job in house, so if there’s a way to bring that back in house, I’m all for it,” he said. “I myself often have recycling on my back porch because my blue cart has not been served by Waste Management.”

But department officials all but ruled out that option, saying it could cost $29 million annually, plus an initial capital investment to purchase more trucks.

Instead, the city is looking to a new three year contract, currently in the procurement stage, with private firms set to begin in January. But bid documents reviewed by Block Club show city workers perform better than private contractors in at least one key metric.

Recycling Struggles

The city divides recycling collection into six service areas. Currently, two private companies, Waste Management and SIMS Metal Management, are paid a total of $12 million to handle four zones. Recycling in two other zones, located on the city’s North Side along the lakefront and on the Southwest Side, are handled by the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted the contract that implemented this system as a way to boost recycling numbers and find efficiencies to save taxpayer dollars.

But the returns have been dreadful. The Better Government Association investigated the program and found recycling rates have decreased since Emanuel implemented the Blue Cart program in place today. 

The city recycled at an 11 percent rate in 2014, but that number has fallen below 10 percent since the program’s inception.

In addition to the dismal rates, the Better Government Association found Waste Management deemed hundreds of thousands of carts as “contaminated,” leaving them at the curb for city garbage haulers to pick up. Some of that waste ended up in landfills owned by the company, allowing them to be paid twice.

“For every 10,000 bins that Waste Management haulers service, 256 were tagged as contaminated during that time, records show. By contrast, Lakeshore and city crews combined tagged at a rate of 12 out of every 10,000 bins,” the BGA study revealed.

Lakeshore is a sub-contractor of SIMS Metal Management.

Bid documents for the new contract show city crews also perform better at another metric: They received fewer complaints.

In 2019, there were 7,333 complaints to 311 for missed service across all six of the city’s recycling collection service areas, but the two areas serviced by the city’s own workers received far fewer complaints than those serviced by the private contractors.

Service Area 2 received just 249 complaints in 2019 and Service Area 4 received 480. But the four areas serviced by Waste Management and SIMS each received at least 1,477 complaints.

The city’s new contract will require companies to review 311 complaints for missed service at least three times per business day and respond within two business days.

The contract also includes penalties ranging from $25 to $200 for missed pickups, officials said. 

In an attempt to reduce the number of carts left at the curb for garbage collectors, the contract also provides clearer rules on why a cart may be deemed contaminated.

A cart must contain more than 50 percent of non-recyclable materials to be deemed “grossly contaminated,” which would mean it can be rejected and left at the curb.

Carts that have non-recyclables but don’t reach the 50-percent threshold must be collected, with an “education tag” left behind to encourage better recycling. 

Bids for the contract are due by the end of November.

Department officials confirmed Waste Management and SIMS are expected to submit bids for the contract.

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