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Chicago Failing To Enforce Recycling Rules In Big Buildings, Businesses — And Has Abysmal Results To Show For It, Watchdog Says

The city “makes no attempt" to identify big building owners who don't offer recycling, even though more than 40 percent of Chicagoans live in high-density buildings, the inspector general said.

Kelly Bauer/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Big building owners in Chicago are required to offer recycling to tenants — but a lot of them don’t, and the city doesn’t bother enforcing the rules, according to a city watchdog report.

Scathing recycling assessments are nothing new in Chicago — which has a recycling rate of 8 or 9 percent compared to a national average of 35 percent — but Inspector General Joe Ferguson said in an audit released Wednesday city leaders have multiple tools to improve the abysmal system when it comes to large buildings and businesses.

For starters, the city could lean on ordinances already on the books, Ferguson says.

The city’s recycling ordinance requires owners of commercial buildings and residential complexes with at least five units to hire private contractors to haul recyclables. But the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department doesn’t “thoroughly enforce” the ordinance and even lacks the capability to issue tickets to those who violate it, Ferguson wrote.

RELATED: How Many Of Chicago’s 77,000 Big Buildings Recycle? Nobody Knows.

Almost 500,000 Chicago households, or 41 percent of the city, live in “high-density residential buildings.” Ensuring proper recycling would boost the city’s dismal rates and “help reduce the city’s dependence on landfills, which emit greenhouse gases that harm public health and natural habitats,” Ferguson said.

In addition to the residential buildings, there are another 60,000 licensed businesses required to hire private waste hauling services. But without proper oversight and enforcement of the city’s ordinance, it’s unclear how many buildings are not recycling, Ferguson said.

Saralyn Fosnight, 78, begins her monthly trek from her 32-unit Rogers Park apartment building to process her recycling at one of several Chicago drop-off centers.

“While the City of Chicago has implemented a variety of recycling programs throughout the years, it has historically struggled with low participation rates. The Chicago Recycling Ordinance was amended in 2017 to include stronger enforcement provisions, but our audit shows that this responsibility has not been met and significant barriers still exist,” he said.

Single-family homes and residential buildings with four or fewer units participate in a separate, blue cart program that suffers from its own low participation rate. Ferguson’s audit solely focused on the oversight of larger buildings.

The audit also suggests former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to eliminate the Department of the Environment led to less oversight of the recycling system. That defunct department was responsible for enforcing the recycling ordinance before it was disbanded and Streets and Sanitation took over. 

Large residential buildings and business owners are required to hire a waste-hauler capable of collecting both landfill and recyclable waste and provide containers to accommodate those residing in the building.

The department is required to give non-compliant building and business owners a 30-day notice before issuing fines ranging between $500 to $5,000, depending on the number of violations in a given year.

However, the audit found the department “makes no attempt” to identify non-compliant building owners, instead relying on public complaints and responding by sending ward superintendents to investigate. 

Between January 1, 2017 and December 30, 2019, Ferguson found there were 97 such inspections, resulting in just three citations.

The city is currently conducting a comprehensive study into its waste hauling programs and looking at best practices from other cities. There’s a stricter contract set to begin in January with the private contractors hired to handle the blue cart program, Streets and Sanitation officials told City Council during a budget hearing last month.

Ferguson said Streets and San did not dispute his findings, some of which were reported by the Better Government Association last year, and is working with other city departments to “improve its citation system and address compliance issues.” But the department is waiting on the results of the city’s comprehensive waste study before making drastic changes.

Streets and Sanitation responded to the audit by saying recommendations from Ferguson’s office “will be taken into consideration together with the waste study findings to form a comprehensive strategy going forward.”

The report suggests the city take bigger steps to improve its poor recycling situation, including a minimum capacity requirement for containers based on occupancy, more frequent pick-ups and volume-based waste fees designed to encourage more recycling.

Despite Failures, City Sticks With Private Firms

Although not included in the study, the city’s blue cart program failures were brought to the forefront during a November budget hearing where department officials rejected having city workers take over the recycling program, despite the consistently poor performance of private contractors.

If the city took over, it would cost $29 million annually, plus an initial capital investment to purchase more trucks, Streets and San officials said.

RELATED: Less Than 9% Of Chicago’s Waste Is Recycled, But City Isn’t Giving Up On Private Firms Despite Abysmal Record

Instead, the city is relying on the waste study and a new three-year contract with tougher guidelines than the current $12 million deal the city has with Waste Management and Sims Metal Management to handle four of the six blue cart recycling zones.

The other two areas, along the north lakefront and Southwest Side, are serviced by city workers. Bid documents for the new contract show those crews receive far fewer 311 complaints for missed pickups.

In 2019, there were 7,333 complaints to 311 for missed service across all six of the city’s recycling collection service areas. The two serviced by the city received just 249 and 480 complaints respectively, while 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. 

Final bids for the contract were due by the end of November. City officials said both Waste Management and SIMS were expected to submit bids.

The full audit is available to read on the Officer of Inspector General website.

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