Editor’s note: This story now includes an important update about how few investigations the Illinois EPA has conducted into violations of the state’s ban on landscape waste in landfills.
Sara Strasser takes pride in her backyard garden where she grows hundreds of tomatoes each year. But every autumn the Chicago teacher wonders about another red-and-gold “harvest” — the leaves that fall from trees in her South Side Beverly neighborhood, and make for great compost.
So she asked Curious City a question that went along these lines: What happens to the yard waste Chicagoans place in the alley for collection? Does the city actually engage in any composting?
We’ve gotten several variations on this question from Curious Citizens. Sara and others say they’ve been confused by changes in how the city handles yard waste over recent years, and they’ve been left feeling suspicious by the ups-and-downs of Chicago’s recycling program.
So we dug into these questions and found this: Citizens are right to be suspicious of the city’s ability to compost yard waste like leaves, grass clippings and weeds. City programs have not only changed several times over recent history, but they’ve also become dramatically less effective — to the point where city crews collected and composted less than one eighth of the tonnage they handled in 2008. The city’s practices and poor performance brush up against the spirit, if not the letter, of a 1990 state law that bans all yard waste from landfills.
This effort matters because bagged yard waste can take up a lot of space in landfills, and the leaves rot in a special way that releases damaging greenhouse gas emissions.
To figure out what’s happening with the city’s program, we’ll look at how the city’s yard waste program works, how little waste gets composted, and how the program compares with those in nearby communities. If you’re bothered by how all this works, we have solutions for handling fall yard waste that just might be more sustainable anyway.
The Chicago way and how it falls short
According to the city of Chicago’s website, more than 600,000 city households serviced by the Department of Streets and Sanitation are supposed to bag up leaves and other yard waste and place them next to their alley garbage bins. The bags don’t have to be special compostable bags that are sometimes used by other cities; the important stipulation is that residents leave the bags outside their regular garbage and recycling bins. Then, residents should call 311 for the city to pick up the bags.
According to the Department of Streets and Sanitation, ward superintendents respond to these 311 pickup requests during much of the year; the amounts are small enough that they are done with pickup trucks as opposed to large garbage trucks. For six weeks in October and November, though, the city expects enough 311 requests that the department will deploy regular garbage trucks for separate yard-waste-only runs. Again, residents are supposed to set these bags outside the regular garbage bins so that they’re not mixed with the garbage stream.
So how is this working? Not so well.
First off, less than 1 percent of eligible Chicago households currently use the program, according to city records.
Second, despite the fact that 311 requests have gone up in recent years, the tonnage collected by the Streets and Sanitation Department has plummeted. Here’s the story over the past decade:
What’s going on here?
The high collection numbers you see in 2008 happened under a different system; at that time, the city sent out trucks weekly to collect yard waste in most neighborhoods. The city dropped yard waste pickup entirely from 2012 to 2013. (Though, it should be noted that it still received more than 1,500 requests for yard waste collection during those years.)
Then, in 2014, the Streets and Sanitation Department launched a system in which yard waste was only picked up by request.
Why did the city make this switch? Chris Sauve, the deputy commissioner of the Streets and Sanitation Department, points to two reasons: lack of resources and low participation from residents when the city deployed trucks weekly.
“We put out yard waste crews in the past who would go through certain alleys without seeing a single bag with yard waste,” he says. “Operationally, it didn’t make a whole out of sense to have people riding the alleys where there was just not a whole lot to collect.”
Sauve blames a lack of resident participation, but it’s worth noting again that between 2015 and 2016, calls from residents seeking yard waste removal doubled (see chart 1), but actual tonnage of yard waste collected dropped 76 percent (chart 2).
Sauve says he can’t explain this discrepancy, but here’s a likely explanation: For much of the year, yard waste was collected as regular garbage that — ultimately — goes to landfills.
Local environmental activist Mike Nowak recounts a story of calling 311 last year for nine bags of yard waste he had accumulated. He says he set them out the day after his garbage was picked up.
“I waited a whole week,” Nowak says. “And then the day after the next garbage pickup, the bags were gone.”
Carter O’Brien, vice president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, says he hears similar stories of residents calling 311, leaving their bags in the alley, and finding them gone after garbage day.
“We have heard the exact same thing from citizens across the city and have had aldermen tell us that these are complaints they routinely get,” he says.
Indeed, WBEZ found in 2015 a sanitation worker throwing yard waste in a big blue garbage truck with the rest of the trash.
The timing of when bags disappear is suspicious. The by-request system is supposed to involve ward superintendents making special yard waste runs outside of the regular garbage truck schedule. Curious City called all nine regional offices of the Streets and Sanitation Department to clarify how things actually work. We asked representatives answering the phone what residents should do with bagged leaves, and we got the following answers:
- Eight of the nine offices said to leave the bags next to bins for pickup by crews on garbage day.
- None recommended calling 311 to request the removal of yard waste.
- Two said it was OK to throw bagged leaves in the regular black garbage bin.
- Just one division office, Division 2 on the Northwest Side, offered to schedule a separate pickup by a ward superintendent.
Perhaps not coincidentally, when Curious City asked the city for an interview with a ward superintendent, we were referred to superintendent Michael Imperatrice who works out of Division 2.
Imperatrice says he has been picking up yard waste based on 311 requests in his Northwest Side 41st ward for two and a half years. He estimates he gets “three or four requests every other day” and he tries to take care of them the day they come in.
He says he collects the yard waste in a pickup truck and takes it to a local Streets and Sanitation office, where it’s taken by another truck to a transfer station. From there, the bags are sent to a landfill, where Imperatrice says he believes they are composted.
Imperatrice says garbage crews are not supposed to stuff bags of yard waste into garbage trucks. But sanitation crews could do that, he says, if they see yard waste bags next to garbage cans where no 311 request had been made. Of course, any yard waste placed in black bins would be hauled away, too, and ultimately destined for landfills.
We told him that the other regional offices told us we didn’t need to call 311, and some even said it was OK to throw yard waste bags in the black bins.
“I couldn’t speak for other divisions,” Imperatrice says, “but what I pick up goes to the transfer station.”
When we present Sauve, the deputy commissioner, with the reports of sanitation crews throwing bags of yard waste in garbage trucks, he says he attributes it to a zeal for cleanliness among garbage crews.
“Our folks go in there and empty the alley,” he says. “They go in one end and they want to make sure it’s clean and spotless. It shouldn’t be the case that if (residents) are scheduling a pickup, we do it the wrong way, but it’s more that our crews have got it ingrained that if there’s material out there, you make sure you’re picking it up.”
Streets and Sanitation Department spokeswoman Sara McGann encourages residents to report these incidents.
“If these were 311 requests for yard waste pick-up, we would like to know where this is happening so that we can take the proper disciplinary actions, as this is not following the abovementioned protocol,” she wrote in a statement to Curious City.
Is this how it’s supposed to work?
In 1990, the state of Illinois banned yard waste from landfills as a way of conserving landfill space and reducing the release of dangerous methane (a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more powerful than CO2) that builds up in bagged organic waste.
So does Chicago’s opt-in pickup system comply with state law?
Here’s O’Brien’s take: “I personally don’t think it meets the spirit of the law and it’s not being well-communicated to residents.”
But what’s the view from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which is tasked with overseeing compliance?
“Illinois EPA does not have any specific guidelines on how municipalities should collect landscape waste, other than the landscape waste must not be mixed with other waste during collection,” says agency spokeswoman Kim Biggs in a statement.
Biggs says the thing to watch out for is when yard waste is mixed with other waste and disposed together at a landfill.
She says the Illinois EPA would respond to complaints if someone did see yard waste being dumped in landfills. The Illinois EPA did not respond to requests for information on how many complaints it investigated during the last 27 years, when the state law went into effect.
When asked if Chicago violated the state law by not collecting any yard waste between 2012 and 2013, when it received more than 1,500 pickup requests, Biggs wrote “IEPA cannot speak to the numbers provided by the City of Chicago. IEPA does not track collection data from municipalities, our jurisdiction is with transfer stations and landfills.”
Sauve says his department is still working on logistics and messaging to residents and crews on yard waste.
But O’Brien says the Chicago Recycling Coalition has been pushing the city on this issue for years, and he points out that the city’s had 27 years to come up with solutions.
“This isn’t something new,” he says. “They’ve had since 1990 to figure it out.”
How do other cities handle this?
Illinois’ 1990 ban has led municipalities from around the state to craft different programs to collect and divert leaves, grass, and plants from landfills. And most of these programs differ greatly from Chicago’s.
For example, Evanston offers fee-based carts for organic waste. Elk Grove Village regularly picks up paper bags of waste with fee-based stickers. And Oak Park offers three methods: fee-based compost bins that accept both food scraps and yard waste, scheduled pick-up of leaf piles on street curbs, and yard waste-only carts or bags with stickers that are purchased and left next to — but not in — garbage carts.
Using these three methods, Oak Park collected more than 3,600 tons of combined yard waste and food scraps in 2015, while Chicago collected just 346 tons of yard waste. (Chicago offers no compostable food scraps collection.) To put this in perspective, Oak Park has about 22,000 households or less than 4 percent of the 600,000 households serviced by Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. Still, the suburb still outpaces the city’s collection efforts.
I asked Sauve how people could make sense of this.
“Oak Park has a completely privatized service there, almost like a menu-based service that people are participating in. And the participation part of it is key,” he says. “Having people sign up for yard waste and organics collection would be much different here in the city if we had a fee-based system, where people are paying directly for specific services.”
Still, data from the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation suggest that eligible residents have been ramping up requests for yard waste pickup, but this hasn’t translated into gains in collection.
And, Oak Park collects the majority of its yard waste in free scheduled fall street sweeps, where residents push their leaves into the street on specified days for 6 weeks.
Sauve says this would be a tough system for Chicago to execute.
“You’d have to disrupt parking so much, especially in the more densely populated areas. It wouldn’t be realistic,” he says. “And once it’s on the street, it could potentially get contaminated with gas or oil from vehicles. It’s just never going to happen with the density we have here.”
He also dismisses the sticker method, theorizing residents would just throw their yard waste in the black bins to avoid paying for a special yard waste sticker.
So what’s an environmentally conscious citizen to do?
City officials and environmental advocates agree that, at this point, composting or mulching leaves at home is the best option. It avoids confusion over pickups and eliminates the carbon footprint of multiple trucks used to transport the waste.
“Trying to keep as much material out of the collection system is best,” Sauve says. “If you can compost it at home or use a self-mulcher, that really reduces the amount that needs to be collected.”
If they’re careful, folks have another option, says Suzanne Malec-McKenna, who served as Chicago’s commissioner for the erstwhile Department of the Environment through 2011.
“It might be best to just gather the leaves, chop them up in a mulching mower and put them on your lawn or flower beds or garden,” she says.
We brought all this information — about the composting options as well as weak points in the city’s current yard waste program — back to our questioner, Sara Strasser.
She says she hoped the city was composting more leaves, but she is also sympathetic to the rationale that the city just doesn’t have the resources to take care of all the yard waste right now.
“I completely understand if it’s not cost effective for the city, and, in that case, it would be beneficial for individual homeowners and the environment for (people) to take it on themselves,” she says. “I just wish people would have more information about how valuable (composted leaves are). They’re the secret to the healthy soil in my garden.”
More about our questioner (and her tomatoes)
Sara Strasser is a Chicago Public School teacher who was raised in Evergreen Park and has lived in Chicago since college. She calls her big vegetable garden her “summer hobby.”
Sara does backyard and worm composting, and she composts her leaves right on her lawn after chopping them up.
“I have neighbors who roll their eyes at me because I don’t rake up my lawn and my lawn looks messy,” she says. “But it’s great for the lawn and doesn’t kill the helpful worms.”
And she doesn’t just use her own leaves.
“I often send my husband around Beverly to get leaves around the neighborhood to improve the soil in my garden,” she confesses. “I put them in my garden where they make great compost for next year.”
Sara says this kind of homemade garden application is the key to the gorgeous tomatoes and vegetables she produces each year.
“I wish more people would use their leaves to do the same,” she says. “It’s just this great resource that I don’t think we really appreciate and instead, I worry that it ends up in the landfill.”
Monica Eng is a WBEZ Curious City reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE: After publication of this story, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency produced 11 records of investigations into violations of the state’s 1990 ban on landscape waste in landfills. IEPA officials said they were unable to search records before 1997; these documents come from the last 20 years. The investigations were conducted at landfills in following counties during the following years. There are 102 counties in the state, but according to the agency Illinois has only 38 active landfills.
- Grundy 1998
- Cook 1999
- Lee 2001
- Stephenson 2001
- Macon 2002
- Madison 2005
- Ogle 2006
- St. Clair 2008 (November)
- St. Clair 2008 (December)
- Union 2013
- Madison 2014