Advocates call for improvements to Chicago Recycling, Starting with Transparent Evaluation of “Managed Competition”

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

Illinois PIRG

A group of advocates led by the Chicago Recycling Coalition called on the Mayor, City Council and Department of Streets and Sanitation to take action to improve Chicago’s worst-in-the-nation recycling rate, starting with a thorough and transparent evaluation of the companies responsible for residential recycling by May 2019. The call to action preceded the budget hearing for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which oversees residential waste and recycling services in the city.

“Chicagoans served by, and paying for, the Blue Cart program all deserve a recycling system that diverts materials from landfills,” said Carter O’Brien, Vice President of the Chicago Recycling Coalition.  “To see Chicago’s recycling rate improve, we need to understand why Blue Carts are being tagged as contaminated twenty times more often in the service zones handled by Waste Management.”

The call to action follows a Better Government Association investigation which found Waste Management is sending tons of recyclable materials to landfills they own, charging taxpayers both recycling and landfilling fees. Since 2014, 90% of recycling bins tagged as “grossly contaminated” and sent to landfills were tagged as such by Waste Management, even though they service half of the city.

Chicago’s recycling rate of 9% is the lowest of any major metropolitan city. Cities such as New York City and Philadelphia have rates twice as high, and Los Angeles four times as high. San Jose leads the nation with a 79% rate.

“Recycling is important to protect Lake Michigan, combat climate change and reduce pollution.  These environmental benefits should cause Chicago to prioritize solutions to our poor recycling rate,” said Jen Walling, executive director, Illinois Environmental Council.

Mayor Emanuel launched the “managed competition” program in 2011 as a way to extend curbside recycling to the entire city. Under the program, the city is divided into six zones, two served by the City, three by Waste Management, and one by SIMS Metal Management, subcontracted to Lakeshore Recycling Services.

When announcing the program in 2011, the Mayor stated the City department and two private companies would be evaluated on “reliability of service, consistency in service and quality in service as well as the price.” To date there has been no evaluation. Both companies got a one year contract extension this year, and are up for renewal in July, 2019.

“We call on the Mayor, City Council, and Department of Streets and Sanitation to take immediate action to improve recycling in Chicago,” said Illinois PIRG director Abe Scarr, “starting with a transparent and thorough evaluation of the managed competition program by May 2019.”

Thanks to advocacy by the Chicago Recycling Coalition, Illinois Environmental Council, My Building Doesn’t Recycle and other advocates, the City passed the Chicago Recycling Ordinance, January 1, 2017. The ordinance substantially increased penalties for non-compliance, required any company handling waste or recycling to file an annual report with the city, updated language to reflect current industry standards for recycling for one to four unit buildings, and required property owners and landlords provide educational materials to residents. The ordinance did not, however, deal with the managed competition program.

The advocates called on the Mayor, City Council, and the Department of Streets and Sanitation to take two specific actions:

  1. The Department of Streets and Sanitation to work with ward superintendents to implement a permanent audit program for contaminated bins before December.

  1. A full report from the Department of Streets and Sanitation by May 2019 that evaluates the managed competition launched in 2011 and lays out a path forward for the City. The report must be published on the City’s website and include, at a minimum:

  • An update on the current goals of the recycling program, including the percent diversion of waste the City hopes to be diverting and by what year it aims to reach this goal.

  • An explanation of the criteria used to evaluate the recycling providers.

  • A detailed breakdown of the cost-per-ton to recycle for each of the providers.

  • The recycling rate in each competitive area.

  • The accumulated results of audits of contaminated bins for each of the competitors.

  • A detailed description of the education initiatives pursued by each company in their service area.

  • Any conflicts-of-interest and/or incentive the providers might have and a description of how those conflicts are managed.

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