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‘The Time Is Now’ To Fix City’s Broken Recycling System, Aldermen Say As They Call For Hearing

"The time is now for Chicago to take action against climate change by stepping up and ensuring that the Chicago Recycling Ordinance is properly implemented and enforced,” the resolution says.

Recycling is picked up in an alley in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood on Dec. 4, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — On the heels of a scathing report from the city’s top watchdog, three aldermen are calling for a hearing on how the city handles recycling in large buildings.

The city’s recycling ordinance requires owners of commercial buildings and residential complexes with at least five units to hire private contractors to haul their tenants’ recyclables. But many of them don’t, in part because the city doesn’t bother enforcing the rules.

On Dec. 2, Chicago’s Inspector General Joe Ferguson, issued an audit saying the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department doesn’t “thoroughly enforce” the recycling ordinance and even lacks the capability to issue tickets to those who violate it.

Inspired by reporting from the Better Government Association, Ferguson’s audit was the latest withering assessment of the city’s recycling programs. Currently, the city recycles at a rate of 8 to 9 percent, lower than the national average of 25 percent and far lower than large cities on the West Coast.

Stating “the time is now for Chicago to take action against climate change by stepping up and ensuring that the Chicago Recycling Ordinance is properly implemented and enforced,” the resolution calls for a joint-session of the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy and Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight to review the program.

The resolution is sponsored by Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and Michele Smith (43rd), who chair the two committees — as well as Finance chairman, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) — making it more likely the hearing will take place.

The sponsors call on Ferguson; Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully; Commissioner of Assets, Information, and Services David Reynolds; Procurement chief Shannon Andrews; and a representative from the city’s Law Department to answer for lack of oversight and discuss the recommendations offered in Ferguson’s report.

The resolution is set to be introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

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.

“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.

Following Ferguson’s report, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Chicago has “never really gotten it right” with the city’s recycling programs.

The city hired the Delta Institute to conduct a comprehensive study into the city’s waste hauling programs and look into best practices from other cities. 

The city is also pointing to a stricter contract, set to begin in January, with the private contractors hired to handle the blue cart program to improve recycling rates. The contract has tougher requirements for tracking 311 complaints for missed pick-ups — an issue city workers receive fewer complaints about than the private firms that handle the bulk of pick-ups in the city.

Ferguson said Streets and Sanitation did not dispute his findings, 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.

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