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Chicago’s Already Low Recycling Rate Declines, Again

Chicago saw a decline in recycling for the third straight year, leading to thousands of tons of waste diverted to landfills.

A general lack of interest in recycling and confusion about what can -- and can’t -- go in the city’s blue recycling bins could be partially responsible for the trend, according to city officials.

Photo illustration: Paula Friedrich and Max Green/WBEZ

Chicago’s recycling program went citywide in 2013, but the amount of material residents recycled has decreased each year, according to data from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, which manages the program.

In 2014, 11 percent of city waste was recycled. In 2015, that number fell to 10 percent. This year, just 9 percent of the city’s garbage was recycled.

A one percent decline might seem small, but in a city the size of Chicago that means about 16,000 tons of waste ended up in a landfill instead of being recycled over the past two years, according to a department spokeswoman.

Even at its peak, Chicago’s recycling rate is far behind other cities. In 2012, San Francisco recycled 80 percent of its waste. In 2015, Austin, Texas, reported a 42 percent rate.

Most programs strive for about 25 percent (recycling rates), and we’re not meeting that,” said Chris Sauve, deputy commissioner for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Photo illustration: Paula Friedrich and Max Green/WBEZ

Even avid recyclers said they were confused about what is allowed in the blue bins. In 2016, for example, the department banned plastic bags from the bins. Prior to the ban, residents could use plastic bags to bundle their recyclables. Now, if a cart has too many non-recyclables everything inside could go to a landfill.

Sauve said when it comes to recycling, the ban on plastic bags is meant to make processing more efficient.

“Plastic bags wreak havoc at processing facilities,” Sauve said. “Bags get caught in the machines and slow everything down.”

Scott Felgenhauer, 61, said he has been a dedicated recycler since the early days, but even he didn’t know about the city’s ban on plastic bags until this summer, when a recycling crew tagged his cart with a sticker to let him know he wasn’t following the rules.

Scott Felgenhauer looks through recycling bins in his neighborhood, something he does regularly to keep the carts in his alley clean and organized. But even Felgenhauer's cart has gotten tagged with a sticker telling him the contents couldn't be recycled. (Max Green/WBEZ)

“It seems to me that plastic bags do go in the recyclables,” Felgenhauer said. “But a lot of people still don’t know that you can’t recycle plastic bags.”

Felgenhauer said the cart-tagging system was effective for him, but he worries other residents don’t spend much time thinking about recycling.

Sauve said the city has pushed an online guide with pictures that show what can and can’t be recycled in Chicago.

Some of the items on the list may seem like they should be recycled, for example, books are made of paper, but processing facilities can only recycle soft covers.

Other recycling no-nos include clothes, plastic and biodegradable utensils, shredded paper, light bulbs, foil or containers with food on them. And, of course, plastic bags.

“I didn’t know about a couple of those things,” Felgenhauer said. “That’s a pretty extensive list.”

Photo illustration: Paula Friedrich and Max Green/WBEZ

Sauve said the city will roll out a number of tactics in 2017 to get the word out to residents who are underperforming.

“Telling them the importance of why recycling matters both on an individual level and on a collective level is something we really need to do in 2017,” Sauve said. “The other thing is obviously reducing contamination and letting them know that only certain specific items can go in that recycling cart.”

Sauve said the department will be knocking on doors in parts of the city where recycling rates are particularly low to try to nudge residents in the right direction.

He said they’ll start with the basics, such as when recycling is picked up, what can go in the cart and why recycling is important.

Sauve said he likes to start by telling people about the environmental impact of recycling.

Honestly, when I talk about it, I will certainly push the environmental message with greenhouse gases and landfills,” Sauve said. “But some of that is not exactly tangible for (residents).”

When that’s the case, Sauve said he talks about money.

I almost make a kind of common sense plea to people to say, ‘look, blue cart is a cheaper outlet for us than the black cart, so please use the blue cart as best you can,’ ” he said.

Max Green is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @MaxRaphaelGreen.

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