Is Chicago Breaking a State Yard Waste Law?

Is Chicago Breaking a State Yard Waste Law?
A city sanitation worker places yard waste in a truck with regular trash. Ryan Katz/WBEZ
Is Chicago Breaking a State Yard Waste Law?
A city sanitation worker places yard waste in a truck with regular trash. Ryan Katz/WBEZ

Is Chicago Breaking a State Yard Waste Law?

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It’s against the law in Illinois to put yard waste, like leaves and sticks, into a landfill. But because of choices made by the city of Chicago, that is exactly where a lot of our yard waste is ending up.

A video from the City of Chicago’s website explains that residents should place yard waste in a paper bag and put it in the alley. The video clearly says special trucks drive through the alleys on a regular schedule looking for yard bags.

But Chicago residents have been telling us they don’t actually think that’s happening anymore.

Here is the first clue: Chicago measures how much yard waste it collects. Last year the city collected only about 10 percent of what it collected in 2010. Why the big drop?

Clue number two: We staked out an alleyway and looked to see what happened.

Alex Riepl agreed to help us out. He is a gardener and cares about the environment. He thought throwing the remnants of his tomato plants in the trash would be wasteful. So he put it all in one of those special yard waste bags, like the video instructs.

We waited to see if the special truck mentioned in the video ever came. It didn’t. Riepl’s yard waste was thrown in a garbage truck, with the rest of the trash, headed to a landfill.

“I guess I’m disappointed. Since there are so many people who do put a lot of effort into it. You’d think the people who run the city would hold up their end of the bargain,” said Riepl.

We called the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation and asked about their pick-up practice. A spokesperson said doing separate pick-up had gotten too expensive for Chicago, so residents must call 3-1-1 and specifically ask for yard waste pick-up. Then a truck would be sent out.

Riepl can be forgiven for the confusion. Many of the city’s web materials on recycling, make no mention of the need to call 3-1-1 for yard waste.

But it’s not only a problem of communication. Having to call 3-1-1 for pick-up is inconvenient.

“If you want a program to fail, make it an opt in,” said Mike Nowak of the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

The recycling coalition also says the city has been breaking the state law against putting yard waste in landfills.

“The yard waste pick-up is basically non-existent in the city of Chicago. And so the Chicago Recycling Coalition finally said that’s enough. Especially because we are in violation of state law. So we sent a demand letter to the city and said you need to come up with a program right away,” said Nowak.

The city said it would work with the coalition and that it would launch a website with clearer instructions next month, but gave us no indication that it will actually change its practices.

Ryan Katz contributed to this report.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h