How to Recycle in a City Without a Program

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Chicago resident Rachel Dooley, here in the alley behind her home, doesn't have access to the city's limited curbside recycling. She and a group of at least 15 neighbors are planning to hire a private recycler. Photo: Rachel Dooley

For many eco-conscious Chicago residents, the city’s current recycling program looks something like this: Sort recycling. Load car with recycling. Drive to recycling drop off.

That’s assuming, of course, you have a car, the drop-off bins aren’t already full to overflowing, and you’re willing to put in the time.

Indeed, in the eyes of most Chicagoans, local recycling is a joke made especially cruel by Mayor Daley’s campaign to cultivate the city’s environmentally progressive image.

READ: Why People Don’t Recycle

Of the 600,000 households with municipal garbage service, only a third have access to curbside recycling, so that less than 10 percent of the waste stream is recycled, according to city figures. Law requires mid-size and large residential buildings to offer recycling services, but many landlords don’t bother and only 19 percent of that waste ends up recycled.

“For such a so-called green city it’s really kind of embarrassing,” says Rachel Dooley, a resident of Humboldt Park, a neighborhood not covered by the current curbside blue cart program. “You think about one bar over the weekend, and how many bottles and cans are just thrown away – it’s scary.”

Of the 600,000 households with municipal garbage service in Chicago, only a third have access to curbside recycling. Photo: Alison Lara, Earth911

Frustrated and angry, Dooley and a handful of other Humboldt Park residents have sought out their own solution. By collaborating with neighbors to defray the cost, they’re hoping to hire the Resource Center, a 35-year veteran nonprofit recycler, to pick up their recyclables for a monthly fee.

Outside businesses and large residential buildings, the Resource Center currently sends its trucks on about half a dozen neighborhood runs like the one Dooley intends to start – a fraction of the city’s recycling potential, but an indicator of the dire need and mounting demand for a more comprehensive solution, advocates say.

READ: True Life Trash Audit

“Waste management in this city is not well thought out,” says Kathryn Lepera who, in addition to working with Dooley as a fellow Humboldt Park resident, is a Resource Center employee.

“It costs money to send waste to a landfill, and weighing that cost versus what you can send to a recycling facility [for financial return] – those two ideas have not been combined successfully in this city.”

Citing budget concerns, the city halted the curbside “blue cart” program before it could roll out across the city. Meanwhile, about $1 million in blue carts sit idling in a South Side warehouse because the city says it can’t afford to roll out the initiative across all 50 wards.

The carts were intended to replace the long-failing “blue bag” program, another single-stream collection system that didn’t serve the whole city and suffered from poor participation. (Excellent backgrounder on Chicago recycling history here.)

Plus, as much as 17 percent of the recyclables the city picks up may not actually get recycled, experts explain. Single-stream recycling, such as the blue carts, often results in cross-contaminated materials with little to no value for a recycler. Paper embedded with crushed glass, for example, produces downgraded paper and glass bits that end up in the landfill.

Could a private company handle Chicago’s recycling better and cheaper? That’s one of the issues on the table now for incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the new City Council, which face a nearly $1 billion city budget shortfall next year.

“Whether the municipality or a private company is picking up the recycling doesn’t matter,” argues Mike McNamee, recycling director at the Resource Center, which uses a triple stream system.

WATCH: How a Recycling Center Works

“The real question is: is that material getting recycled? Or is 15-17 percent ending up in landfills? The city has a reasonable recycling law if it’s enforced.”

Susan Satell, who organized a similar subscription program in her Logan Square neighborhood, points to another hurdle: awareness.

“A huge part of recycling is education,” Satell says. “Telling people about the island of plastic in the middle of the ocean, the inability of garbage to break down in the landfill…people are willing to change, but they need education.”

About 33 families participate in the Logan Square program, each paying about $20 a month for recycling pickup from the Resource Center.

Meanwhile, the Humboldt Park recycling project is not a go just yet. Dooley and Lepera need at least 15 households to join to keep the monthly fee at $15 or under. To that end, they’ve organized a Facebook page, held meetings in a local coffee shop and slapped up posters. Meanwhile, the Resource Center is mapping out an efficient pickup route to justify the gas costs.

But once recycling pickup starts, the work isn’t over, Lepera says.

“It’s not just that I want to recycle. I want to get my neighbors to recycle, too.”

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