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Under Fire For Not Enforcing Private Recycling At Multi-Unit Buildings, Streets And San Boss Happy To Pass Off The Work

Streets and Sanitation is required to make sure owners of buildings with five or more units hire private waste haulers, a job the department's commissioner said he "wouldn't object" to kicking to another branch within the city.

Recycling is picked up in an alley in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood on Dec. 4, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — The Department of Streets and Sanitation isn’t in charge of collecting recycling at buildings with five or more units — the building owners must hire private firms to do the work.

But the city requires Streets and San to police that private work, a job the department’s boss said Wednesday he “wouldn’t object” to kicking to another branch within the city.

Commissioner John Tully was called before aldermen Wednesday after his department came under fire for not adequately ensuring building owners actually get recycling picked up for their tenants.

Chicago’s top watchdog, Inspector General Joe Ferguson, said in a December audit the city doesn’t “meaningfully enforce” the 2017 ordinance mandating owners of large buildings provide recycling services, exacerbating the city’s already woeful recycling rates. The department even lacks the capability to issue tickets to those who violate it, Ferguson said.

Streets and San didn’t object to the findings in the audit and is implementing changes as resources allow, officials said Wednesday during a joint-session of the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy and Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight.

But department officials said they lack the resources to implement every change quickly, conceded other tasks would be “monumental” to track and said it “lacks the funding” to improve recycling rates through other means, like increased outreach to residents on what can and can’t be recycled.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) asked if it would “make more sense to empower the Department of Buildings” with the task of “riding herd over private haulers and building owners.”

Tully ultimately said he “wouldn’t object” and “would welcome any help on that,” saying he “takes responsibility … that we haven’t taken the strides I would have liked” in increasing the city’s recycling rates. 

“The department’s goal on trying to improve recycling has never changed,” he said. But “our personnel, and the way our department has evolved over the last several years, really doesn’t allow us manpower-wise to do those kinds of things.” 

The 2017 ordinance requires owners of commercial buildings and residential complexes with at least five units to hire private contractors to haul recyclables.

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.

On Wednesday, Ferguson reiterated that the department wasn’t “meaningfully enforcing the ordinance.”

“While ward superintendents conducted informal inspections upon request, we found there was no standard inspection process, and the outcomes of the inspections that were requested … were not themselves recorded consistently,” he said. 

Chris Sauve, deputy commissioner of Streets and Sanitation, said the department has coordinated with the Law Department to empower its employees to issue tickets to violators through its mobile ticketing system, something that wasn’t previously possible. But, the department hasn’t been able to retrain its staff on the new system and is targeting March training sessions.

Carter O’Brien, vice president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, said his group raised concerns in 2017 that Streets and Sanitation isn’t equipped to provide oversight of recycling efforts, and suggested the Departments of Buildings, Business Affairs or Transportation could better help enforce the ordinance. 

“We ask that people consider this as a possible longterm solution, just for the simple reason that many of these inspectors are already visiting these buildings on a regular basis anyway, and it strikes us as cost effective and efficient, and probably very effective to see if there’s a way that a checkbox for recycling be added” to their duties, he said.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to disband the Department of Environment contributed to the lack of oversight and overburdened Streets and Sanitation, Ferguson said.

“It requires departments that have inherited some of these environmental enforcement programs to take on responsibilities without the requisite analysis being provided or support being provided to actually carry forward those new reassigned responsibilities,” he said. 

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she would restore the department when campaigning for mayor, she has not, citing budget constraints. Instead, Lightfoot created the new position of chief sustainability officer, housed within the Mayor’s Office, tasked with managing sustainability efforts throughout the city.

Last month, Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) introduced an ordinance requiring chief sustainability officer Angela Tovar and the city’s budget director to evaluate what it would cost to restore the Department of the Environment.

Lightfoot has pointed towards a “comprehensive waste study” currently underway by the Delta Institute that will provide an assessment of Chicago’s recycling practices and offer recommendations based on best practices from other cities.

The city won’t make comprehensive changes until the study is complete, which Suave said is expected this spring.

Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) said the 2017 ordinance asked the department to “boil the ocean” without providing enough resources.

“We left you with something that’s just un-accomplishable as it’s written, and that’s not fair,” she said. 

Reilly said if the city wants to improve the rate of recycling, it’s time to “put our money where our mouth is,” regardless of which department is in charge.

“To conduct inspections, you need people,” he said. “Whichever department that ends up being, whether it remains with you or goes to another department, it’s pretty obvious it’s going to require some dedicated resources and tracking and auditing, and that’s not something any department can double-task any employee with.”

The separate blue cart program for residential buildings with four or fewer four units was also put under the microscope at the departments’ November budget hearing.

A new three-year contract — with stricter reporting requirements and heftier fines for missed picked ups — was meant to improve recycling rates in the program. Initially meant to end last year, the previous contract was extended until July.

Bids from three companies are currently under review for the contract: Independent Recycling Services, Lakeshore Recycling Systems and Waste Management of Illinois, Cristina Villarreal, director of public affairs for Streets and Sanitation said Wednesday.

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