Private Trash Haulers Rarely Face Punishment for Illegal Pickups, City Data Shows

Despite scores of noise complaints from frustrated residents jolted awake by garbage trucks, private trash haulers have been slapped with just five tickets for illegal pickups during quiet hours over the last two years. That’s according to a WTTW News analysis of data obtained from the Chicago Police Department and the city’s 311 nonemergency line.

In its response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CPD said detailed information on those citations is “a highly particularized and specifically tailored record – one that the Chicago Police Department simply may not compile or maintain in entirety or with the level of detail or sub-categorization you seek in the ordinary course of business.”

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CPD was able to provide a list of noise violation citations issued against a private company between Jan. 1, 2022, and November of this year, though it didn’t have records of the business names or the work the firms do. That list of citations includes only five tickets for violating city law preventing trash haulers from noisy loading and unloading between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The scofflaws on the list appear to be repeat offenders. CPD data shows officers issued citations on Jan. 27 and Sept. 11 of this year at the same location near Chicago and Greenview avenues. Three more tickets went out for violations near Belmont and Sacramento avenues — two on April 27 and one on May 26 of this year.

There were 140 complaints of illegal trash pickups reported to 311 across the city from Jan. 1, 2022, to October of this year, according to data obtained by WTTW News. Cries from help came from 32 of Chicago’s 50 wards, with many residents complaining of trucks coming in the 4, 5 and 6 a.m. hours. A few even complained of trash and recycling pickups as early as between midnight and 3 a.m.

Many residents complained that they’d repeatedly reported the companies and said the loud noise was waking neighbors, including children and infants. The exasperation of sleep-deprived Chicagoans is apparent across many of the reports.

“I’m so tired please help,” one report read.

“This was not business, this was just plain rude,” said another.

Other residents called out the city for failing to stop the illegal pickups.

“I’ve submitted so many complaints and there’s no action by the city,” wrote one resident.

“This is getting ridiculous. … Please fix this,” said another complaint.

Eleven different haulers were named in the list of 311 complaints. The three most frequently spotted by residents were Lakeshore Recycling Services — a company WTTW News busted making pickup around 6 a.m. back in July — as well as Flood Brothers and Waste Management.

“Waste Management picks up garbage DAILY in our alley and always before 7 am,” one complaint said. “Why don’t they have to pay a fine for disobeying(?)”

Another resident who complained of Waste Management pickups between 1 and 4 a.m. wrote “I dread them coming tomorrow.”

In a statement, Waste Management told WTTW News: “We take all complaints seriously. Our team works with the City and the alderpersons’ offices to address and resolve complaints that are received.”

Neither Flood Brothers nor Lakeshore Recycling Services responded to a request for comment.

A number of residents also complained about Republic Services, which WTTW News saw operating in the wee hours over the summer. The company previously said in a statement that “... we work diligently to plan our routes so that they conform with applicable ordinances. We work closely with ward superintendents so that we may resolve any complaint that arises in a timely manner.”

Those citywide complaints about garbage pickups line up with tips WTTW News has received from around Chicago since first reporting on illegal, early-morning pickups earlier this year. But quantifying how many complaints the city has received about the problem isn’t easy. While city data shows Chicago’s 911 system has gotten nearly 82,000 noise complaint calls over the last two years, there isn’t a specific code for trash haulers working during quiet hours. Nor is there one in the 311 system. The data obtained by WTTW News was compiled by city staffers through a keyword search. And many residents complain directly to their alderperson’s office.

That jumble of methods Chicagoans use to complain about illegal pickups is matched by the confusing method for enforcement until a change last month. Generally, city officials said the local ward superintendent for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation reaches out to their private company counterpart and reminds them to stick to approved pickup hours. If they don’t comply, the police could step in and write a ticket — though the numbers show that rarely happens.

As for complaints that come through to 311, the data WTTW News obtained shows a similarly confusing pipeline. Some are marked as not coming through to the proper jurisdiction, others are marked as having been forwarded to the police, and the majority are simply marked as “completed.” Only one complaint says the police plan to patrol the area for future violations.

The difficulty of tracking trucks and stopping scofflaws led Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st Ward) to push a measure aimed at curbing illegal pickups, which he told WTTW News is a major quality-of-life issue across the city.

“They might get a scolding call from someone at Streets and Sanitation, but then a few weeks later, they’re back at the same old thing because there is no real meaningful penalty or enforcement mechanism,” said La Spata, who added that noise complaints are one of the most common types of 911 calls in his ward. “I feel for our officers, because … by the time you get to it, the offending action has already taken place. This gives us a workaround for greater accountability and enforcement.”

The ordinance grants citation writing power for illegal pickups to Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, and mandates that private trash haulers turn over their GPS and other electronic tracking data for truck routes upon request so that city staffers can monitor and punish pre-dawn garbage pickups.

A spokesperson for Streets and Sanitation said the department “works with residents on reports of private haulers in violation of the hours requirement and fully supports the new ordinance which allows for enhanced enforcement through GPS reporting and review. Residents are encouraged to call 311 and DSS will follow up with ticketing and fines when private haulers are found to be noncompliant.”

The City Council unanimously passed the measure into law last month, and it took immediate effect.

Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg

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