Emanuel Administration Promises Reforms to City’s Recycling Program

After the BGA reveals how tons of recycling is diverted to landfills by a private company that stands to profit, a top city official tells aldermen he is moving to fix the problem.

A residential Blue Cart recycling bin was tagged "contaminated" in a Waste Management zone. (Madison Hopkins/BGA)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Streets and Sanitation commissioner promised frustrated aldermen on Thursday he will reform the city’s worst-in-the nation residential recycling program by rewriting its contracts and beefing up oversight.

“There’s enough blame to go around on the way even the city was handling it,” John Tully told reporters after a tense exchange with aldermen during the department’s City Hall budget hearing.

Tully’s comments are the first public indication the administration is moving to address issues detailed in a Better Government Association investigation that exposed lackluster oversight, alarming rates of recycling diverted to landfills and even a potential conflict of interest by one of the companies that picks up recycling.

The probe found residents in neighborhoods on the Northwest, West and Far South sides patrolled by garbage-hauling giant Waste Management, Inc. are 20 times more likely to have their recycling diverted to the garbage dump — including one operated by Waste Management.

Tully acknowledged there is a disparity in how recycling is handled among the two private companies and city sanitation crews that split up the city’s residential services.

“It wasn’t uniform,” Tully said. “What we want is everything handled consistently.”

Waste Management haulers, who handle only about half of the city’s residential recycling, are responsible for nearly 90 percent of the recycling bins tagged at the curb as being “contaminated” with items that are not recyclable, the BGA found.

Once tagged, the material inside the Blue Cart bins are then diverted to landfills, including the Waste Management landfill that regularly receives city trash. In those instances, Waste Management is paid twice — once to deem the cart contaminated and a second time to receive the landfilled material.

The other half of the city’s residential recycling bins are handled by either city Streets and Sanitation crews or Lakeshore Recycling Systems, which does not operate a landfill.

Asked specifically what the administration is doing to address that Waste Management conflict, Tully said he intends to “build language in” to renegotiate contracts, which are up for renewal next year.

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Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully answers questions from aldermen during Thursday's budget hearing. (Madison Hopkins/BGA)

“We are definitely looking at new contracts,” he said, declining to answer specifics. “Those are all being crafted right now.”

Waste Management has denied any financial incentive played a role in which bins its drivers tag as contaminated. Contacted by telephone on Thursday, a spokeswoman for the company said the city’s actions are welcome.

“That’s all good,” said Lisa Disbrow, the company’s director of public affairs. “Anything that the city would like to add to the contract to clarify contamination would be great. Anything that improves the recycling stream and the recycling participation is positive.”

Thursday’s hearings follow a backlash from environmental advocates and aldermen, as well as criticism from a phalanx of mayoral candidates looking to succeed Emanuel, who is not seeking a third term in next year’s election. One candidate even called for an investigation by the city’s inspector general.

Aldermen expressed their own concerns about a lack of oversight in a recycling program that was touted as a pillar of Emanuel’s tenure as mayor.

“Waste Management is a major issue for me,” said Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th, during the City Council’s budget committee hearing. “They go months sometimes without picking up carts, and they are unresponsive. It’s hard for us to get a hold of them because we are constantly complaining ... It is just over the top.”

Tully told aldermen he plans to transfer four sanitation specialists specifically to monitor the private recycling contractors, streamline the tagging process for contaminated bins and work to better train the pick-up crews.

“We’re going to make sure that, in fact, there is contamination,” Tully said.

Tully said the four sanitation workers will use new technology to monitor and spot-check private haulers when they label a bin contaminated.

Some alderman complained about recycling problems they’ve repeatedly seen in their wards.

“I sometimes get the sense that the contractors go through and just tag, tag, tag to get finished with that route and I don’t think some of those are contaminated,” said Ald. Patrick D. Thompson, 11th. “What I would like to see is a comparison of where we have private contracts doing the recycling and how often they tag vs where the city folks are doing the recycling.”

Ald. John Arena, whose 45th Ward on the Northwest Side is serviced by Waste Management, said the recycling program needs oversight. He was among a group of aldermen who last year called for an audit of the program.

“I think that we’ve made it abundantly clear that we need to address it and find a way to get to a better place there,” he said.

Chicago’s recycling has been hampered by poor performance and neglect for years, beginning with the failed Blue Bag program under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Emanuel, from his earliest days in office, vowed sweeping improvements though strict oversight and “managed competition” that pitted two private haulers against city sanitation crews.

The mayor announced his managed competition with great fanfare in 2011, which was his first year in office.

“It will be an evaluation of reliability of service and consistency of service, the quality of service as well as the price,” Emanuel said at the time.

The BGA investigation last month found Emanuel’s reforms have hardly been managed or competitive — a key reason why the city recycles a smaller portion of the residential waste it picks up now, compared to 2013. Chicago’s residential recycling rate now stands at less than nine percent, the lowest of any major metropolitan area in the nation, according to a BGA survey.

The BGA examined hundreds of thousands of contamination reports dating to the beginning of the program, and found Waste Management diverted the contents of more than a half million Blue Carts to landfills after tagging them “contaminated.”

That amounts to about 30,000 tons of recycling, and enough Blue Cart bins to fill Wrigley Field from the playing surface all the way to its iconic scoreboard, the BGA found.

Much of that recyclable material ended up in a Waste Management-owned landfill. The BGA also found the city was unable to provide many of the documents and reports it was supposed to collect to monitor the program.

Under city rules, each of the haulers are allowed to declare a Blue Cart contaminated if even one piece of contraband material is inside. However, the city doesn’t specify how strict each crew should be when making that decision, leaving the door open to many possible interpretations.

Tully said more diligent recycling crews might see that a resident put all their recycling in a prohibited plastic bag, and “they rip the bag open and dump the plastic bottles into the recycling.

“In another area they may have just slapped a ticket or put a tag on,” he said. “So it’s a definite problem … It’s just a matter of training the crews, telling them what we expect, having regular meetings with them.”

Before the BGA’s report was released, Arena and Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, introduced a City Council resolution calling for a full audit of the recycling program as well as council hearings.

“I don’t want it to become a situation where they say ‘Oh, we’re doing tons of education — look, look, look — while Waste Management continues to dump where they want and double down on our costs,” Waguespack said.

Waguespack’s ward is located on the border of two recycling zones — one serviced by city sanitation crews and the other by Waste Management. He said after he included the BGA’s report in his ward’s newsletter, he heard from many residents who were angry to learn the true scope of Chicago’s recycling problems.

“The response has been pretty tremendous,” he said. “I think people are kind of stunned.”

Before the budget hearing, Arena and Waguespack attended a City Hall press conference with environmental activist groups to demand a full accounting of the program.

The BGA’s policy team, which operates independently of the investigations team, helped organize the press conference and is advocating for reform and better transparency in the recycling program.

In attendance at the news conference were representatives of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, the Illinois Environmental Council, and the Public Interest Research Group.

“Even though so much of the country has learned to recycle somehow we don't get it yet,” said Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, another alderman who attended the morning news conference. “And I think it's really, really important that we do.”

About the Author

Madison Hopkins

Madison Hopkins is an investigator for the Better Government Association. She received her master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in August 2016. During her time at school, she worked as a research assistant for the Chicago Tribune in the investigative department and contributed to reporting projects at the Invisible Institute and WBEZ.