BGA Investigation Reveals Major Problems With Recycling In Chicago

Chicago greenlights new reality show: America’s Next Top Recycler
Chicago greenlights new reality show: America’s Next Top Recycler

BGA Investigation Reveals Major Problems With Recycling In Chicago

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Since 2014 private companies contracted by the city have labeled more than half a million recycling bins in Chicago as “contaminated” and dumped the contents into landfills they own.

A Better Government Association investigation found that Texas-based Waste Management makes a profit when bins are found to be contaminated — the company is paid whether its crews pick up a bin or tag it as contaminated, and is then paid again when the contents are dumped into their own landfills, costing taxpayers twice.

Morning Shift checks in with the BGA to break down the investigation into Chicago’s recycling system.

What Waste Management marks as “contaminated”

Madison Hopkins: Out of the households that receive taxpayer-funded recycling pickup in Chicago, which is single-family homes and residential buildings with four units or less, all of the waste generated by those households, only 9 percent is recycled. The rest of it goes to a landfill….

David Greising: The issue that our investigation turned up is that even when people go to the trouble, if you live in a Waste Management [operated] district, you’re more than 20 times more likely to have that trouble basically negated by the fact that the company, seemingly willy-nilly, puts a “contaminated” sticker on your cart. If there’s a little bit of extra pizza crust in there, if there’s a single film trash bag in there, all kinds of rules and regulations that they apply much more aggressively than the city crews, or any other private contractor that picks up trash in the city.

A possible conflict of interest

Hopkins: Why it’s so interesting that we found that Waste Management does this so much more often than the other contractors is because Waste Management also is the only contractor that hauls recycling for the city that owns a private landfill that accepts some of the city garbage, which would include some of the contaminated blue bins.

Sarabia: OK, so let’s get down to the cost here, David. How is this sort of looked at almost like double-dipping, costing taxpayers double?

Greising: It does look like double-dipping. And we haven’t been able to establish exactly how much money is in it for waste management, but again, they’re the only company that has this conflict-of-interest, and they happen to have this huge disproportionate amount of “contamination” [stickers] being done. So it would seem that there is an incentive for Waste Management crews to be aggressive on the contamination, because the company benefits from the landfills. And the company, in response to our questions, did not directly address that question: whether or not their crews are motivated in order to bring extra business to the company-owned landfills.

Neglect from the mayor’s office

David Greising: [Having companies like Waste Management compete for a recycling contract] feels like a program that the city kind of set up with a lot of kind of publicity, et cetera, with Rahm Emanuel claiming that he was going to save the city, I think, 10 million dollars by this managed competition. There’s been no award of a contract in a final way to say, “Hey, this is the team that won—this is the best model.” There’s really been no persuasive argument about what those savings really have looked like, et cetera. The contracts were extended last year without any competitive bidding that I’m aware of.

GUEST: Madison Hopkins, investigative reporter at Better Government Association

David Greising, executive director, Better Government Association

LEARN MORE: Tons and tons of Chicago recycling isn’t getting recycled. And a private company is paid for it — twice. (Better Government Association 10/10/18)