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Chicago’s ‘Never Gotten It Right’ With Recycling, Lightfoot Says

Less than 9 percent of Chicago's waste is recycled, while the national average is 35 percent.

Chicago's recycling rate keeps getting worse.
Benjamin Woodard/DNAinfo
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CHICAGO — The city’s recycling program has long struggled to make any sort of impact — and Mayor Lori Lightfoot acknowledged as much Thursday after yet more criticism.

A new city watchdog report outlined how owners of big buildings aren’t offering recycling to tenants, despite being required to. And the city isn’t enforcing the rules, according to the audit from Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

It’s just the latest scathing review of Chicago’s floundering recycling efforts. Less than 9 percent of Chicago’s waste is recycled, while the national average is 35 percent.

Lightfoot, speaking during a Thursday morning news conference, acknowledged how the city has struggled for years to improve its recycling rate — but said officials are working on it.

“We’re in the process of reevaluating everything about our recycling program,” Lightfoot said. “Unfortunately, we’ve never really gotten it right. … It’s time for us to get it right.”

John Tully, head of Streets and Sanitation, said the city’s problem with recycling has years-old roots.

“Obviously, we’re not happy with the situation, as well,” Tully said at the news conference.

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

Streets and Sanitation took over Chicago’s recycling responsibilities when the city’s Department of Environment was dissolved under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Over the years, the environment and streets departments tried various methods for encouraging and collecting recycling, most recently implementing the blue cart program. But nothing has significantly improved the city’s recycling rate.

And Chicago’s waste collectors pick up everything that’s left in alleys, which many cities don’t, which means the city has a higher waste to recycling ratio, Tully said.

A nonprofit, Delta Institute, is reviewing Chicago’s recycling system, including how it manages food waste and compost. A report from Delta Institute is coming soon, Tully said.

The findings from that report will be combined with recommendations from Ferguson’s office as Streets and Sanitation considers how to move forward.

Tully said the city is also making changes to its contract for private companies that manage city recycling, hoping that will force them to improve.

Despite Failures, City Sticks With Private Firms

Although not included in the Inspector General Office’s 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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