- Chicago officials on Wednesday released a formal waste strategy for the city, which is thought to have one of the lowest recycling rates among major U.S. cities at around 9%. There are dozens of near- and long-term recommendations regarding policy, operations, community efforts and more.
- Unlike some cities, Chicago is not setting a specific waste diversion target at this time. "We did not set a goal because I think for us this is a roadmap to move to a better direction," said Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar. "I think it would be a big leap to go from the current rates that we have here in the city of Chicago and then to jump all the way to zero waste without talking about the interim steps in order for us to get there."
- According to documents, another next step in the strategy is to research "potential for implementing waste hauling zones for commercial waste," an approach New York City and Los Angeles have taken. Other ideas include bolstering organics collection by adding food scrap collection to yard waste routes, and establishing a revenue-sharing partnership with a textile recycling company for collecting clothes, shoes, and other textiles.
The strategy, comprised of a series of documents and representing work and input from more than 90 people across the consultancy Delta Institute, city departments and private and nonprofit organizations, is meant to bolster diversion efforts across waste types.
The city of Chicago in 2020 generated 4.13 million tons of refuse, recycling and yard waste. Less than 9% of it was recycled. At the end of 2020, the Chicago Office of Inspector General released an audit report that found the Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) was failing to adequately enforce recycling in commercial buildings and large multi-family residences.
Most recently, Chicago reshuffled its blue cart recycling haulers in June after in April awarding new zone contracts to Lakeshore Recycling Systems (LRS) and pulling back service from Waste Management, which assessments showed may reject carts at a notably high rate.
Chicago's waste collection is set up such that private companies service commercial and multifamily buildings, but DSS oversees compliance. DSS collects waste for small residential properties, but contracts out some recycling services.
While the report lays out 63 strategic recommendations in total, 12 are listed as priorities for 2021 and 2022. "We look forward to swiftly implementing many of the recommendations outlined in this report and developing a modern materials management system that minimizes landfilling, advances our city's ambitious sustainability goals and prioritizes the needs of our residents," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.
Among the near-term policy priorities is to research the potential for commercial waste zones in Chicago. "It would be irresponsible if we didn't look at franchising as a possibility for Chicago," said DSS official Chris Sauve, who serves as deputy commissioner of policy and sustainability and director of recycling, adding that such an approach could be "a major gamechanger" but the work of exploring it is just beginning.
Also on the list is the intent to support "ambitious" statewide extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. "I'm very excited about hearing what's happening in other states," Sauve said, citing a recently approved packaging law in Maine. While Chicago officials are not aware of any such bills from Illinois lawmakers, the city is "exploring what that could do to our programs," Sauve said.
The city also intends to revisit its construction and demolition debris (C&D) recycling ordinance, with an eye toward improving compliance and specifying targeted material types and parameters for reuse. Build Reuse, a U.S. nonprofit that encourages recovery, reuse and recycling of building materials, "enthusiastically supports cities like Chicago incorporating building material reuse in their waste strategy plans to address climate change, resource conservation and job creation," per a statement emailed from Secretary Allison Arlotta. "What works in one city may not work in another but evaluating the results of existing programs is essential for crafting a successful program for any municipality looking to turn C&D waste into local resources."
Chicago reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 15% between 2005 and 2017, Lightfoot announced last year. The city is still aiming to achieve a 26% to 28% reduction from 2005 levels by 2025. For Tovar, who was appointed a little over a year ago, diverting waste and pursuing a sustainability agenda is not just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "That's certainly critical and we understand the urgency of mitigating climate change, but it's also about building out pathways for new economic opportunities ... and to really support communities, especially now more than ever."