Chicago's Recycling Bin Overfloweth

February 11, 2009

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Recyclables pile up at the city's Rogers Park drop-off center. (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
For many environmentalists, there's a big flaw in Chicago's green image: a lackluster recycling program. The city ditched its controversial blue-bag recycling system last spring. But phasing in the new blue cart program is taking years. So for most Chicagoans, there's only one option for city-sponsored recycling: a network of drop-off centers. Some recyclers say those centers are a half-hearted solution—symbolic of a city that's been behind on recycling for years.

SPITZER: I'm here at the Chicago Center for Green Technology on the West Side, and I'm waiting for Mike Nowak, who's president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. And while I'm waiting, this big sort of modified tow truck with a big hook on the back has showed up. And it's hoisting one of these large blue recycling bins up onto its back. This is a particularly busy center, especially on the weekends. And a lot of people wonder whether these pickups happen often enough. And that, in turn, gets into some deeper questions recycling advocates have about whether the city does enough to encourage recycling, and whether Chicago even deserves its reputation as a green city.

NOWAK: I'm Mike Nowak, and I'm president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. And they just picked up all the recycling, which is great! So I don't have to jump up on top of the bin and smush it down like I did last time we were here.
SPITZER: Wait, explain what you mean.
NOWAK: Well, the last time I came to do my recycling, the bins were full. They were to the rafters.

Nowak says it sends the wrong message when recyclables wind up spread across the gravel – becoming, in some cases, pollution.

NOWAK: Yeah, it sends the message that we're not really on top of the job.

That West Side center is one of a handful that rack up complaints about inadequate pickup, especially on weekends. On a recent Saturday, the centers in Lincoln Park and Rogers Park were pretty tidy. But recyclers there say that's not always the case.

BARRIBUS: Typically, it's overflowing.
SAVARALA: Things are all over the bins.
HUPPARD: I've seen them where there are boxes and garbage bags piled up all around them.
HOLCAMP: I don't think it gets picked up enough and I don't think there's enough of ‘em.
SAVARALA: We came from Louisville, Kentucky, where everybody has a recycling bin, it's like the thing to do. And now coming here, it's really weird ‘cause we have to go to drop-off centers.

That was John Barribus, Sameera Savarala, Judy Huppard and Margaret Holcamp.

The Department of Streets and Sanitation maintains the centers. Spokesman Matt Smith says there's no set schedule for pick-ups. They just try to keep up.

SMITH: Sometimes, you might get a rush at these stations. So we monitor them. The ones that are more frequently used get picked up much more frequently.

On the day we spoke, Smith says he'd been up all night dealing with snow removal so recycling wasn't exactly front-of-mind. But he says even in a season of record snow and shrinking budgets, the city has managed to roll out a bunch of new drop-off centers. He wants a little credit for the city just for shielding the program from the axe.

SMITH: You know, it's very easy to sit back and say, hey, the budget's tough. We can't expand these facilities. That's not the case with us. We had to make some very tough decisions in other areas, but we're still pushing forward with recycling with the blue cart.

Ken Dunn's been knee-deep in Chicago recycling since the '60s. He runs the non-profit Resource Center, which operates four of its own drop-off centers. He says the city should stop treating recycling like it's something extra.

DUNN: I think it's time we just decided this is part of being a responsible human being. We have to figure out how to do the job of maintaining a high quality of life in the city: providing police protection, fire protection, libraries, and recycling.

Hauling bottles, cans and paper costs money. For a lot of people, it's probably more important to have safe, snow-free streets and rat-free alleys. But Chicago officials, starting with its mayor, clearly see value in being a green city. They use it to attract businesses, tourists, and perhaps even the Olympic Games. Mike Nowak of the Chicago Recycling Coalition says the city can't just call itself green – it has to earn it. And that comes back to recycling.

NOWAK: I've always felt that the whole concept of greenest city in America is wrapped up in this. And for the last 15 years I view it as kind of a blind spot the city has had. So the sooner we get this solved, the closer we are to actually being the greenest city in America.

Meanwhile, Nowak and others say an overflowing recycling bin isn't the worst problem to have. Even when it's messy and inconvenient, Chicagoans are willing to lug their stuff across town and drop it in – or next to – a big blue bin.