- Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) now has more authority to enforce recycling violations for commercial and multi-unit buildings, but so far the agency hasn't been actively seeking them out. "We’re not out there looking for businesses or buildings that are not in compliance, and hopefully we don't have to get to that point," a DSS spokesperson told Medill Reports Chicago.
- Instead, the agency relies on 311 calls to drive its enforcement. According to the Chicago Recycling Coalition, that led to 274 building inspections through August of this year. Advocates, and some local aldermen, view this as an inadequate use of the new enforcement power for thousands of eligible buildings in the city.
- This topic, along with the city's persistently low recycling rate, will be among multiple priorities for newly announced DSS Commissioner John Tully. The 23-year DSS employee will be elevated to the job pending approval from the Chicago City Council, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Chicago's recycling program has undergone multiple changes in recent years under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, including the switch to carts and to a grid collection system. Though, so far the city has been unsuccessful in elevating its diversion rate, which hovers just above 10%. Contamination rates are often much higher.
Earlier this year, DSS teamed up with The Recycling Partnership for an educational campaign and has begun tagging carts. A switch to pay-as-you-throw has also been discussed, which Emanuel expressed openness to in the past.
Because DSS doesn't collect from buildings with four or more units, it has less control over what happens inside. Last year, the city announced plans to enforce fines of up to $5,000 for failure to provide recycling. This faced pushback from the real estate community so a 30-day warning period was added. Two months into 2017, it was reported that DSS had already received 130 complaints. Yet based on more recent data that pace appears to have slowed, and it's unclear whether the policy has led to a significant expansion of recycling access for commercial tenants or residents of multi-unit buildings.
Encouraging high participation, while keeping low contamination, is tough in multi-unit buildings around the country. Sometimes this is due to design challenges where residents don't have ready access to waste and recycling chutes or storage rooms. Other times building owners don't provide recycling options in the first place. Finding a balance between the cost of city enforcement agents and the return from fines or better recycling participation isn't easy. Though, so far, Chicago's more passive approach isn't delivering big results either.