10 Things To Know About Chicago’s New Waste Strategy

From compost to old clothes, Chicago has a new plan for dealing with waste and recycling.

Curious City yard waste recycling bin
Monica Eng / WBEZ
Curious City yard waste recycling bin
Monica Eng / WBEZ

10 Things To Know About Chicago’s New Waste Strategy

From compost to old clothes, Chicago has a new plan for dealing with waste and recycling.

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Over the years, Curious City has answered a lot of questions about problems with city trash.

We’ve looked at how the city handles recycling, contaminated materials, yard waste and food scraps — and what experts say could be done better.

Chicago has the worst big-city recycling rate in the nation, a poorly advertised and inconsistent yard waste collection strategy and no municipal food composting program.

Progress on these issues had long been stalled. But that changed this month when Mayor Lori Lightfoot released the City of Chicago Waste Strategy. The plan takes on a lot of the concerns our readers have shared and offers solutions, many very similar to those we’ve presented in the past.

According to the city, the plan aims to “minimize landfilling, increase diversion and recycling, reduce cost, and increase efficiency, maximize economic investment and workforce development opportunities, and address social and environmental justice inequities.”

Here are 10 things to know about this long-awaited plan:

NO SET GOALS: The plan features dozens of recommendations but doesn’t include any specific targets or deadlines for waste reduction. Evanston, for example, has a goal of reaching 50% waste diversion by 2025.

“I would certainly like to see a little more metrics and accountability and [information on] what happens if we don’t meet goals,” says Carter O’Brien, vice president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, an environmental advocacy group.

A NEW RECYCLING HAULER: Before the plan was released, the city took a major step toward potentially improving its recycling program.by implementing a new contract with a different recycling hauler.

A 2018 Better Government Association investigation found the city’s main recycling hauler, Waste Management, was diverting relatively large amounts of “contaminated” recycling materials into the garbage and could potentially profit from that diversion if the materials went to its own landfills. The company denied the allegations, but three years after the investigation it lost its contract with the city.

A DOZEN PRIORITY ITEMS:The strategy outlines dozens of long-term suggestions, including 12 for 2021-2022. The prioritized items range from supporting waste reduction legislation to helping consumers find places for their old electronics and clothes.

VEGETABLE SCRAP DROP-OFF: The plan calls for partnering with community gardens to create compostable food waste drop-off points. Chief sustainability officer Angela Tovar says she believes the program will be available by the end of the year. But she stresses it will require educating the public on the right food scraps to collect, and how to store them for composting.

CITY-RUN COMMERCIAL GARBAGE PICK-UP: Angela Tovar, the chief sustainability officer, says the city is researching the possibility of overseeing not just residential garbage, but also commercial garbage pick-up. This would give the city more oversight on how much commercial waste is diverted away from landfills.

PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY PROPOSALS: The Waste Strategy calls for supporting the passage of statewide legislation that would make manufacturers more responsible for the recycling their products.

MORE BLUE BIN EDUCATION: The plan supports creating new ways to teach residents how to recycle better so fewer blue bin loads get so contaminated with food, broken glass or other contaminants that they can’t be recycled.

SMASHING PUMPKINS: City recommendations include hosting more events like “pumpkin smashes” where people can bring their old moldy Halloween pumpkin for composting.

“These are very important events,” says Angela Tovar, the city’s chief sustainability officer. “Think about all of the pumpkins after Halloween that enter the waste stream. This is an opportunity for us to really raise visibility on organic waste to say, ‘Hey, you know what, that pumpkin does not go in the landfill.’ ”

RIGHT-SIZING OUR CARTS: The new plan calls for reevaluating the number, size and distribution of the city’s black and blue carts to potentially improve recycling rates. This might even include a “Pay As You Throw” model (where you pay for bigger trash bins) advocated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has been adopted by communities across the country.

CLOTHING RECYCLING: The plan suggests “establishing a revenue-sharing partnership with a textile recycling company for collection of clothes, shoes, and other textiles otherwise ending up in landfills.”

Monica Eng is Curious City’s reporter. You can follow her at @monicaeng.