- Chicago Alderman John Arena is calling for the city to consider eliminating its flat $9.50 per household waste collection fee in exchange for a volume-based rate, giving residents a financial incentive to recycle. Following a recent council hearing on the topic, Arena released a statement saying, "The city’s recycling program has failed its residents."
- Arena joined advocates, including the Illinois Environmental Council and the Chicago Recycling Coalition, in supporting multiple reform measures. They want a permanent auditing system in place by December and a detailed report from the Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) by May 2019. This would include an update on current recycling program goals, an explanation of the criteria used to evaluate recycling providers, a breakdown of their cost-per-ton to recycle and results from contamination audits, among other items.
- After last week's hearing, DSS Commissioner John Tully indicated the city has increased oversight of Waste Management's cart-tagging practices by assigning additional employees to follow trucks on their routes. He also recognized frustration with the current system is not unfounded, according to the Better Government Association (BGA) and Chicago Sun Times.
Chicago's waste and recycling collection programs have come under increased scrutiny over the past few weeks following a BGA report that blasted the existing system. The report said that residents in certain sections of Chicago are more likely to have their recyclables landfilled by Waste Management due to contamination than collected by Lakeshore Recycling, the city's other contractor.
This is considered problematic not just for environmental reasons, but because Waste Management is seen as essentially double-charging the city. The company is already paid recycling fees regardless of whether a curbside cart is collected or tagged as "grossly contaminated." Waste Management gets paid again when city crews take the contents of tagged carts to its landfill. A Waste Management representative told BGA the implication that crews were intentionally diverting material to landfills was incorrect.
Even before this current issue arose, the city's recycling program had been facing criticism for a while. Advocates have long called for solutions to boost Chicago's recycling rate which, at less than 10%, is much lower than in most other major metropolitan areas. The city launched a large-scale educational campaign with The Recycling Partnership in summer 2017 to help increase correct participation and reported positive results from that initial pilot. However, contamination rates remain high and are viewed as a deeper issue that will take time to address.
A new cost structure could potentially aid that effort and has initial political support. City leaders have fought the flat-rate waste fee ever since it became a controversial aspect of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's 2016 budget. At that time, another alderman estimated a pay-as-you-throw system would generate $62.7 million more for the city than the flat rate was expected to bring in. Commissioner Tully continues to emphasize the need for public education, as opposed to the recycling incentives that Arena proposed, and said he plans to include new language in the upcoming 2019 contract to address any potential conflicts of interest.