Your NPR news source

Taking Recycling to New Heights

SHARE Taking Recycling to New Heights
Part of Chicago's green agenda is to reduce its waste. Officials say about 62-percent of Chicago's garbage ends up in landfills. Recycling is one way to reduce that figure. But currently, there's no plan for recycling in commercial and residential high rise buildings. That's a large chunk of the city's total waste stream. Some high rises have taken the initiative to implement their own recycling programs. And one of the tallest in the world has shown how easy it can be. As part of our series Chicago Matters: Growing Forward

, we learn how the Sears Tower is joining the effort to cut down on waste.

More than 8,000 people work at the Sears Tower. You can imagine how much garbage all those people produce. Eddie Gray works at one of the building's many law firms, in a records department.

RHEE: How long have you worked in the building, Eddie?
GRAY: This building? 26 years.
RHEE: 26 years...What kind of things did you guys recycle back when you first started working here?
GRAY: Nothing. (laughs)
RHEE: Nothing?
GRAY: Talking a long time ago. Recycling was not a hot topic. And now, it is.

That's especially true at the Sears Tower. In less than two years, the building has gone from recycling seven tons of paper a month, to nearly 50. That means hundreds of tons of garbage that used to go to landfills is now being reused.

The change started last year. In April. That's when a realty firm called U.S. Equities took over management of the building. The company made recycling a priority. It actually does that at most of the buildings it runs. Recycling cuts down on waste hauling costs and turns out to be pretty popular. Angela Burnett is the Sears Tower's assistant property manager.

BURNETT: Our tenants want to recycle, our tenants want to do the right thing, they want to promote sustainability within their own offices. And as a responsible landlord, we want to provide every amenty possible to our tenants. It's another service that we can provide them with.

Burnett helped start the new recycling program at the Sears Tower last year. And it began with thousands of plastic bins. She says she made sure nearly every desk had one, in addition to a waste basket. Burnett says the recycling program's reinforced through constant communication: e-mails, meetings, even the little TV screens in the elevators.

BURNETT: Showing them how well we're doing, reaching out to the tenants who maybe aren't participating in high volumes, or maybe are participating but don't understand all the materials that could be recyclable.

This is all with the help of the custodians. They tell Burnett if any offices aren't recycling the right materials. Which results in a follow-up visit from the management.

Every night, housekeeping collects all the paper in the bins and brings it downstairs, below ground, to the loading dock. Each week the housekeeping staff brings down about ten tons of paper to this area. That equals the weight of about three family sedans.

BURNETT: And as you can see we have the containers clearly labeled for the housekeeping staff in three different languages...

Every day, a truck comes and hauls off a load of paper to a recycling facility. The process is simple. That's why it works. But these kinds of programs aren't mandatory in Chicago. Other tall buildings have recycling services, like the Aon Center, CNA Plaza and John Hancock Center. But it's hard to tell how widespread these initiatives are.

RHEE: I'm walking through the River North neighborhood of Chicago right now. This is just north of the Loop. And I'm here because there are a lot of high rise condos and office buildings around here and I want to know if people are recycling...Do you recycle in your building?

PERSON 1: I don't actually, but I'd like to. I'm from Canada so it's a pretty normal thing for us to put our stuff in a blue box after we're done with it and recycle it.
PERSON 2: Oh, my office does but my building of residence does not.
RHEE: And how do you feel about that?
PERSON 2: Well, I still try and separate it because I'm hoping to be able to recycle it and push it, but it hasn't happened yet.
RHEE: What are you doing with all that stuff?
PERSON 2: Well, I end up just throwing it out but I do separate it with intentions to recycle it. But I don't have a car so I can't drive it anywhere.
PERSON 3: It's not really easy to do in the building that I live in. They don't provide the bags and we don't have a waste hauler that participates in the program.
RHEE: How do you feel about not being able to recycle?
PERSON 3: Oh, I wish I had the option.

High rises generate about 29-percent of Chicago's total waste stream. That's more than one-and-a-half million tons a year. And every building has a different waste hauler. There's no uniformity in the way garbage is collected.

Now, there is an ordinance in Chicago that requires high rises to recycle. But it's rarely enforced. Suzanne Malec-McKenna is the commissioner for the city's Department of Environment. It recently helped release a green initiative called Chicago’s Climate Action Plan. Malec-McKenna says recycling is an important part of that.

MALEC-MCKENNA: The key way to be environmental is a combination of things. How are you green? You're green by reducing your energy, you're green by reducing your water, you're green by recycling as well.

Malec-McKenna says the city's currently looking at different ways to recycle in high rises. That includes a pilot program in one neighborhood and...

MALEC-MCKENNA: We've been testing out the concept of waste franchising where you're able to combine efforts in particular regions so that one company's doing the work. There's consistency, there's money savings and there's required, free single-stream recycling.

But that idea is still in its infancy. Large scale, mandatory recycling in high rises won't happen any time soon. The city for years has struggled with recycling issues that other cities have already dealt with. Julie Dick, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, thinks she knows one of the reasons.

DICK: In Chicago we don't really have a culture of recycling.

Dick says for too long, the city has gone without a recycling program that residents believe in. She says that's a shame because so many people are willing to help.

DICK: If people know that it's worth their time to recycle, that if they just throw these materials in the bin next to the garbage can that they'll actually be recycled, people are going to do it.

The Sears Tower is a case in point.

I'm Mike Rhee, Chicago Public Radio.

More From This Show