Editor's Note: This story, first published in April 2019. The presentation's audio story was added on May 25, 2019.
Last year, the Better Government Association reported that Chicago has the worst recycling rate of any U.S. city — at just 9 percent of all residential waste collected by the city. And lots of questions remain about how Chicago runs its program, who may be profiting and why hundreds of thousands of recycling bins are sent to the landfill.
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has also weighed in, saying Chicago needs to improve its "abysmal"recycling rates and hold the city’s “waste contractors accountable.”
In the meantime, residents can do their part to make sure what they throw into the recycling bin isn’t ending up in the landfill. That means following the latest recycling rules, which can sometimes be a little confusing.
Curious City has gotten lots of questions about those ever-changing rules, so we decided to clear up some of the confusion — and maybe even push the city’s recycling rates into the double digits.
1. Is it true if someone puts a non-recyclable in the bin that the whole bin will be thrown out? — Camille Fiess
Possibly. But the level of contamination that triggers tossing the whole bin is not super clear, and appears to be up to individual collectors or contractors. According to Lisa Disbrow, spokesperson for Waste Management of Illinois, which collects about half of Chicago’s recycling, bins could be deemed “contaminated” and sent to a landfill “if the majority of cart is filled with [plastic] bags or non-recyclables.”
However, Marjani Williams, director of Public Affairs at the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation suggest a stricter standard. “If contaminants [like bags and non recyclables] are identified upon visual inspection, carts are deemed contaminated to protect the recycling stream and processing equipment,” she said.
2. I noticed that peanut butter containers can be recycled and don’t need to be completely clean. Wouldn't the oil from the peanut butter contaminate paper in the bin and make it non-recyclable? — Rhonda Bartlett Robinett
“A little bit of residue in the peanut butter jar is OK,” says Tom Vujovic, an area recycling director at Waste Management of Illinois, “because when it goes to the recycling mill the plastic is going to go through a washing cycle and all the residue gets removed.”
But Vujovic reminds residents that — just to be safe — they should still empty most of the jar.
3. Should the caps be on or off bottles or jars that go into the recycling bin? — Alex Diaz
It is important to screw caps onto bottles and jars before putting these items into the recycling bin, even if the caps are made out of different materials.
“With the sorting system we have, loose caps end up in our glass and can contaminate the product,” says Tom Vujovic, an area recycling director at Waste Management of Illinois.
4. If a cardboard box contains plastic packing materials, can the entire box be recycled? — Pat Carroll
“When you get something like an Amazon package, we want you to throw out the peanuts because loose [styrofoam] packing peanuts cannot be recycled in our program,” says Tom Vujovic of Waste Management. “Throw out all plastic bags and liners. And breakdown the box so that its flat and takes up less room in the [bin] and you can close the cover. A little packing tape on the box is OK.”
5. Why doesn’t the recycling program include plastic grocery bags? — Lisa Linke
Tom Vujovic at Waste Management says that for years recycling facilities did allow them, but they were banned from the blue carts in 2017 because they were often filled with non-recyclable items and can get tangled in sorting equipment, thus stopping the whole sorting line. That doesn’t mean one bag will always spoil the whole bin. But, Vujovic says, if there are too many in the bin — especially if they hold non-recyclables — it is likely the whole bin will be deemed contaminated and sent to a landfill. Still, he says, the bags are recyclable. Vujovic encourages residents to bring plastic bags to local grocery stores that collect them for recycling.
6. Are there recycling centers where I can drop off my recycling? — F. Wilson
The city of Chicago operates two, one in the South Loop and another in Rogers Park. The private recycler, Resource Center, also operates a facility in the parking lot of North Park Village, right off of Pulaski Road, and another in Woodlawn.
7. Does Waste Management accept glass for recycling? — Rose Dombrow
“We do accept glass,” says Vujovic of Waste Management. And while some recycling experts say mixing glass with other recyclables is a problem because broken pieces can embed in plastic and paper, Vujovic says this is not an issue for Waste Management.
8. I’ve heard pizza boxes were not recyclable. Is that true? — Jay Shefsky
This is a tricky one. Deputy Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Chris Sauve generally discourages residents from recycling pizza boxes because too many are filled with food and greasy liners (those cardboard discs that go under the pizza). But Vujovic of Waste Management counters that pizza cardboard can be a very valuable recycled item, if residents recycle it properly. That means removing all food and the grease-catching circular liner. This just leaves the clean outer box, which is perfectly recyclable even with a few small grease stains, Vujovic says.
9. What about junk mail? Does the plastic window on the envelope need to be removed? — Camille Fiess
Nope. The plastic window can be recycled.
10. Can I recycle Starbucks cups? — Camille Fiess
No, you cannot recycle the paper cups meant for hot coffee in the Chicago program. But you can recycle the paper sleeve and the plastic top. You can also recycle the top and empty cup from your iced coffee. But the straw goes in the trash — or you can try drinking iced coffee without a straw.
Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @monicaeng.