Chicago is Failing to Enforce Recycling Laws: Watchdog

(Erich Röthlisberger / Pixabay)(Erich Röthlisberger / Pixabay)

Chicago is not doing enough to ensure that residents of large apartment complexes and businesses keep recyclable glass, paper and aluminum out of landfills, according to an audit released Wednesday by the city’s watchdog.

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Streets and Sanitation, the department charged with hauling away the city’s trash and recycling, does not even have the ability to ticket property owners who fail to comply with the city law, which requires owners of commercial buildings and high-density apartment buildings to provide recycling services to their tenants, according to the audit from Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

Nearly 500,000 Chicago households live in buildings with five or more units, making up about 40% of the city, officials said. Approximately 60,000 businesses are also required to provide recycling services to their tenants, according to the city’s ordinance. Failure to comply with the city's recycling ordinance can result in fines ranging between $500 and $5,000 per day, under a law that took effect in 2017.

The city’s blue cart recycling program is only available for single-family homes in the city and buildings with no more than four units. That program is the focus of enforcement by city officials, according to the audit.

Representatives of the Department of Streets and Sanitation did not dispute the audit’s findings. However, they declined to make any changes until an ongoing study of the city’s waste and recycling policies is completed in 2021 by the Delta Institute, according to the audit. 

“As we await the city’s comprehensive waste study and its eventual impact on a proactive enforcement strategy, we are encouraged that the Department of Streets and Sanitation agreed with our recommendations and has begun collaborating with other departments to improve its citation system and address compliance issues,” Ferguson said in a statement.

Streets and San has been charged with enforcing the city’s recycling ordinance since 2011, when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel disbanded the Department of Environment. The Department of Environment was able to ticket the owners of commercial properties and large apartment buildings for violating the recycling ordinance, but Streets and San employees do not have that capability, according to the audit.

Owners of large apartment complexes and commercial buildings are required to hire one of 15 licensed waste haulers in the city to handle their trash and recyclables. Those firms are required to submit an annual report to Streets and San officials about which buildings they served — and what materials were diverted from landfills.

But Streets and San officials failed to enforce that provision of the law — and took no action against the firms that filed the reports late or not at all. Of the 15 firms, six firms met the deadline to submit 2018 reports, while three filed late. After an inquiry by the inspector general, three more reports were submitted to Streets and San — while two remain unfiled, according to the audit.

None of the reports were assessed by city officials for accuracy, according to the audit.

That information could help the city “calculate diversion rates, set goals and monitor progress,” according to the audit.

The inspector general recommended that the city’s ticketing system be changed to allow those violating the recycling ordinance to be cited and urged Streets and San to require detailed reports from private waste haulers. 

Between 8% and 9% of the trash produced every year by Chicago residents is kept out of landfills, officials told aldermen during hearings on the city’s 2021 budget.

By comparison, residents of New York City recycled 17% of their trash. In Los Angeles, the recycling rate is 76.4% — in part because of strict rules set by California officials.

Efforts to boost Chicago’s recycling rate has been complicated by a drop in the price recycled goods can sell for in the international market and a lack of local facilities that can process glass, plastic and paper for reuse, officials said.

Private firms had until the end of November to submit new proposals to city officials to haul away recyclables from blue carts in two of the six sections of the city.

Any new deal, set to start in January and last for three years, that will replace a $12 million contract inked in 2011 will include penalties for the contractors if they miss pickups, a frequent complaint of residents, as well as plans for more composting of organic waste, said Department of Streets and Sanitation Deputy Commissioner for Policy and Sustainability Chris Sauve.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]


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