Chicago Aldermen Call for Hearings Into Failing City Recycling Programs

Citing an investigation by the BGA that revealed systemic failures in Chicago’s Blue Cart recycling program, aldermen demand public examination aimed at improving the city’s worst-in-the-nation programs.

Following a BGA investigation, aldermen have raised questions about Waste Management's role in Chicago's recycling programs. (Madison Hopkins/BGA)

Two Chicago alderman on Wednesday called for separate probes into the city’s impotent recycling programs, citing a Better Government Association investigation that revealed how one waste hauling contractor is often paid extra to divert Blue Cart contents to its own dumps.

The two competing resolutions — introduced by aldermen Matthew Martin, 47th, and Raymond Lopez, 15th — followed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent announcement that the administration plans to study ways to improve Chicago’s worst-in-the-nation recycling program.

Lopez, a frequent critic of the mayor, even called for investigations by federal and state law enforcement agencies in addition to council hearings.

“I don't generally wait for the mayor to do things because I’ve seen time and again, where she has stated publicly she wants to move on something and then it falls to the wayside,” Lopez said Wednesday before introducing the resolution.

Lopez, who represents a ward on the South and Southwest sides, said he did not coordinate his efforts with Martin, a rookie alderman from the North Side. Martin said he did coordinate his proposal with Lightfoot’s office. It calls for City Council hearings on the recycling program.

“I think this is something where you’ve obviously seen a ton of reporting about it, including from the BGA, and now the Inspector General is taking a look at the issue,” Martin said. “I think we need to look as broadly as possible at recycling.”

A Lightfoot spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday that the administration is committed to improving the city's plan that deals with garbage and recycling.

“We recognize recycling is a key component in our efforts to make Chicago more sustainable,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to working alongside Alderman Martin, the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy and members of the City Council to find ways to advance initiatives that protect all of our communities and address current issues.”

Both resolutions cited an October 2018 BGA investigation that exposed lackluster oversight and revealed how tons of recycling is diverted to garbage dumps by Waste Management, Inc., which stands to profit when contents of Blue Cart bins are sent to landfills instead of recycling centers. The BGA found the company in many cases is paid for picking up recycling it labels contaminated, and then paid again when the contaminated contents are dumped in its for-profit landfills.

While Waste Management is responsible for only about half of all recycling pickups throughout the city, the BGA found that company haulers are responsible for roughly 90 percent of the 577,886 recycling bins labeled as “grossly contaminated.”

Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward

In an emailed response to the investigation, a Waste Management spokeswoman at the time denied financial incentives played any role in the decisions made by haulers on the street.

“Recycling contamination is an undeniable trend across the country. It is no different here in Chicago,” said company spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow.

She also said her company has no control over where contaminated Blue Cart material is dumped.

Many residents interviewed by the BGA claimed their Blue Cart bins are frequently tagged as contaminated inappropriately.

The BGA investigation, which relied on five years worth of recycling data provided by the city, also found that Chicago’s 9% recycling rate is the lowest of any other major city in the nation.

Ald. Matthew Martin, 47th Ward

Alderman Lopez’s resolution called for the Illinois Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Waste Management’s plans to acquire another waste-hauling giant, Advanced Disposal. That merger could significantly increase the number of transfer stations and landfills under the company’s control and discourage competition, the resolution says.

“I know firsthand that we’ve had a lot of issues with our private recyclers who have basically double dipped with the city,” Lopez said, “where they will say it’s contaminated without even looking at it while still getting paid to actually go through the alleys and then force our crews to have to go and retrieve the garbage itself.”

“My hope is that as we’re trying to find a way to expand recycling to keep it alive in any way we can, that we’re not bamboozled by this merger that we’re seeing coming down the pipe.”

Ald. Martin’s resolution called for hearings on a wide range of recycling topics, including the Blue Cart contracts, recycling services in larger residential and commercial buildings, and the possibility of creating a compositing program.

He said he hopes the public hearings will coincide with the release of an upcoming audit by the city’s Inspector General on how well the city Department of Streets and Sanitation is enforcing city laws requiring larger residential and commercial buildings to hire their own recycling services.

The City Council referred both resolutions to its Committee on Environmental Protection & Energy for further consideration.

Updates

This story was updated at 6:57 pm on February 19, 2020 to include a statement released by the Lightfoot administration.

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