How Many Of Chicago's 77,000 Big Buildings Recycle? Nobody Knows.
This story was co-published with Block Club Chicago.
More than two years since Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed a recycling crackdown on thousands of Chicago’s largest landlords, his administration has handed out only three fines totaling $750.
Emanuel’s enforcement of his own mandate for landlords to provide recycling services for tenants has been undermined by a series of bureaucratic mistakes and a lack of execution by city regulators, a Better Government Association investigation found.
The review of city records found only a tiny fraction of Chicago’s nearly 77,000 larger residential and commercial buildings were ever inspected for compliance despite Emanuel’s get-tough rhetoric, with many being let off the hook by officials, records show.
The mayor’s alleged crackdown — which vowed a renewed commitment for recycling at every Chicago threshold, a beefed-up inspection program and steep daily fines — never happened.
“It’s appalling. They’re just clueless,” said 78-year-old Saralyn Fosnight, who every month makes a pilgrimage to drop off her recycling two miles from her Rogers Park apartment building. “The city seems to be going backwards when it comes to recycling.”
Some of her neighbors in the 32-unit building were among the first to complain to City Hall under Emanuel’s January 2017 ordinance. Two years later, Fosnight says she and her fellow tenants still have no recycling and their landlord has paid no price for violating the ordinance.
It is a scenario that has played out time and again throughout Chicago for more than 1 million residents affected by Emanuel’s measure designed to ensure recycling services extend beyond the residential Blue Cart program into larger venues such as commercial buildings, apartments and high-rises.
“It’s important that Chicago’s ordinance reflects current standards to ensure every resident has the opportunity to recycle,” Emanuel proclaimed in a 2017 announcement after the ordinance was adopted. “We are requiring more recycling access and education to help improve the environment while creating a better quality of life for all Chicagoans.”
But as Emanuel prepares to leave office May 20 after eight years as mayor, his rhetoric on the environment is belied by a record of deference to corporate polluters, waste management companies and the city’s monied real estate interests.
In the past year, the BGA reported how Chicago’s residential recycling rate has plummeted to the lowest of any major city under Emanuel, how his administration allows private haulers to divert recycling to landfills, and how citations issued against polluters have plunged to about one-third the total issued under his predecessor.
Even his soon-to-be successor has problems with the apparent contrast between Emanuel’s promises on recycling and his actions to back them up.
“It’s one thing to issue a press release and have a news conference and say you’re going to do something,” Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot told the BGA in an interview about recycling during her campaign. “But the diligence is required to make sure that there’s actual follow-through.”
Emanuel declined to be interviewed for this report. A spokesman argued the city’s priority was to work with landlords and not against them, and that the inspections have proven successful at winning compliance.
But a BGA review of thousands of city records, interviews with dozens of residents and on-site inspections at properties across the city revealed that Emanuel’s crackdown has largely failed.
Of the 76,845 buildings that fall under the new ordinance, only 486 were ever inspected for compliance — a few multiple times. And even when they were inspected, the BGA found numerous cases where inspectors found buildings in compliance when they were not.
The ordinance enacted daily fines of between $500 and $5,000, which were never imposed, records show. Emanuel’s reforms struck down previous reporting requirements that property owners certify at City Hall that their buildings have recycling — a measure similar to those imposed by many other cities.
In trying to assess the program, the BGA had to request data from four separate city departments, revealing a haphazard system of inconsistent and weak enforcement. Inspectors received no formal training or guidance on how to perform inspections, even marking buildings in compliance without ever speaking to the tenants who complained, according to hundreds of inspection reports obtained from the city under the Freedom of Information Act.
In a handful of cases, inspectors closed cases without ever visiting the property, the reports show.
What’s more, over the past three months the BGA conducted its own on-site inspections at nearly three-dozen buildings. The BGA chose a cross-section of building types in neighborhoods scattered across the city. It also visited buildings that were cited by city inspectors to see whether the process worked to improve services.
The BGA site visits found at least nine buildings of the 35 that now offer adequate recycling following city inspections, suggesting that some property owners have responded to the enforcement.
But at least eight of the 35 inspected buildings still offered no recycling for tenants, and many others offered only one small recycling bin or limited access.
“I’m livid. It’s totally screwed up,” said Renee Mann, 60, who has lived in her 18-unit Edgewater apartment building for nearly two decades. “I tried for years just to get us a bin, and now they don’t even pick it up.”
Records show city inspectors investigated three separate complaints made about recycling at Mann’s building, including an accusation the landlord was allowing a single, 95-gallon recycling bin — the same size as a residential Blue Cart bin — to overflow with material.
In each of the three complaints, city inspectors marked the property to be in compliance with the recycling law. The landlord did not return BGA telephone calls seeking a response.
“Recycling should be the easiest thing to do,” Mann said. “Instead people are stuck just throwing things in the trash.”
The BGA found complaints like Mann’s are routine throughout the city.
A history of failures
City Hall has been talking tough on recycling for decades.
In response to growing public interest in recycling during the early 1990’s, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Chicago City Council enacted sweeping new rules to bring recycling to all city residents.
The most notorious initiative was the ill-fated Blue Bag recycling program, in which residents tossed their recyclables into blue bags that were placed in trash cans and sorted later by sanitation crews. Blue Bag only applied to residential buildings of four units or fewer.
Daley shut down the program in 2008 following low participation, charges of cronyism, lax enforcement and reports that around one-third of the bags were sent straight to landfills as garbage.
Even as Blue Bag was failing, so too was an initiative to take recycling to the high-rises. That lesser-known and largely ignored program required commercial and larger residential building owners to offer recycling to their tenants.
On the campaign trail before he took office in 2011, Emanuel promised a comprehensive overhaul of recycling. That started with the residential Blue Cart program, which supplied residents with curbside bins and set up separate routes for collection.
From his early days in office, activists pushed Emanuel to do something about finally enforcing recycling at the bigger buildings as well. In 2015, some of those activists even developed a crowd-sourcing website for renters who had no access to recycling.
That site, MyBuildingDoesntRecycle.com, quickly garnered thousands of complaints — and the attention of City Hall.
“I think it just publicly embarrassed them,” said Carter O’Brien, an outspoken critic and vice president at the Chicago Recycling Coalition. “They couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
But the Emanuel administration declined the activists’ requests to aggressively enforce requirements beyond a complaint-based system similar to the one that failed under his predecessor, O’Brien said.
Instead, the new measure required owners to educate their tenants, promised enough containers to serve all tenants — whether five or 1,500 — and increased daily fines from $100 per day to $500 per day for the first offense, and rising to as much as $5,000 per day for repeat offenders.
“They were just trying to look good,” O’Brien said. “It’s pretty clear at this stage in the game the city isn’t sincere about enforcing the recycling ordinance. They never had any intention to make this functional.”
By the numbers
Records show Daley’s inspection program was lackluster, with the administration issuing only 200 citations at the larger buildings over a decade. Emanuel’s efforts have been even more anemic.
Under Emanuel’s ordinance, property owners have paid only three total fines of $250 each — which is half the mandated minimum fine outlined in the measure. A spokeswoman acknowledged the citations were coded in error, but did not offer an explanation.
Because of the city’s haphazard recordkeeping and reporting requirements, it is difficult to determine how many of the city’s bigger buildings are in compliance.
Harrington Weihl said he lives in one that isn’t in compliance, even though inspectors said it is.
Weihl, 29, complained to the city in April 2017 that his apartment building in Bowmanville, a subsection of Lincoln Square, offered no recycling. Records show the city inspector who responded made no finding.
Soon after the complaint was filed, the building landlord put a recycling dumpster next to the trash bins in back of the building, said Weihl, but both of the heavy dumpsters faced a wall and were impossible to distinguish from each other.
“There is a lack of transparency among everyone involved with it. That’s the main takeaway I’ve had,” said Weihl, who said he still drives his recycling to one of the city’s few drop-off points. “People who care about recycling really don’t have many options in Chicago.”
The landlord, contacted by the BGA, said he was unaware there was a problem with the placement of his recycling dumpster and that he would look into it.
In all, the BGA identified 538 recycling-related inspections at 486 larger buildings for a two-year period ending in 2018. Of those 538 inspections, there were at least 225 cases in which city inspectors gave building owners 30 days to make improvements. The vast majority of those were either passed on second inspection or the case was closed with no finding, records show.
Records also show inspectors issued only nine citations after the initial 30-day warnings. Of those nine, records show, six were tossed for paperwork errors or due to inadequate evidence.
Only in three of those cases were fines assessed and paid, and two of those instances involved citations issued by the same inspector during the same week in 2017. At least one of those two had political overtones.
Recycling the Chicago way
That ticket was issued to the landlord of the Logan Square office of 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who at the time was locked in a well-publicized rent dispute that eventually prompted him to move his ward office.
The landlord, Mark Fishman, has since filed a lawsuit to recover an alleged $96,000 in unpaid rent and fees from the alderman.
Contacted by the BGA, Fishman said the building always offered recycling. Records show there was a yearlong lag between the inspection by Ramirez-Rosa’s Ward Superintendent, Luis Zepeda, and the ticket being issued. Ward superintendents in Chicago, while employed by Streets and Sanitation, are appointed by the aldermen and work at their behest.
“We had recycling but they still gave us a ticket,” said Fishman, who wrote the $250 check to the city to cover the ticket. “At some point it’s just easier to pay the ticket than to waste the time fighting it.”
The same inspector who wrote Fishman’s ticket issued another just days before at an Albany Park apartment complex, but the BGA could find no connection between the two citations. Zepeda did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Ramirez-Rosa said he didn’t recall that his landlord was among two people cited for recycling violations by Zepeda. He added that his ward office works diligently to bring all landlords into compliance before writing any tickets.
“Unfortunately in some instances, despite our best efforts to work with the property managers or landlords, the only option left to us was to issue a citation,” Ramirez-Rosa told the BGA.
Chris Sauve, Emanuel’s director of recycling programs, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this report. Instead, his spokeswoman asked for written questions.
In response to those questions, Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Marjani Williams defended City Hall’s enforcement record, saying the purpose of the new ordinance was not to write tickets or generate revenue.
She said the focus should be on the vast number of inspected properties that received no tickets, implying that they are now in compliance with the ordinance.
Williams said she was unable to explain why only three of the nine violations resulted in fines and said other city departments are responsible for processing violations.
She declined to answer specific questions about her department’s oversight of the ordinance, including how inspectors are instructed to carry out their responsibilities, what sort of recycling program is considered acceptable or why city inspectors made so many recordkeeping errors.
“Increasing recycling participation through access and education remains a priority for the city,” Williams said in a written response, adding the city’s goal is to “ensure all residents have access to quality recycling service and education through the enforcement of the Chicago Recycling Ordinance.”
What other cities do
Despite promising to bring Chicago’s rules up to industry standards for municipalities, the city’s law is still far behind other major cities that enforce citywide recycling mandates, giving officials less authority to thoroughly monitor compliance and gather information.
Under Emanuel’s ordinance, all private haulers in the city are required to file annual reports with Streets and Sanitation, showing information on the total amount of recyclables collected each year.
Unlike other cities, Chicago does not require individual landlords to report their compliance. In Philadelphia and San Antonio, for instance, landlords themselves must report evidence of their recycling programs. In California, major cities require landlords to hire specific recycling haulers, who then report which landlords are in compliance.
“Chicago is at the bottom of the heap in terms of how poorly it does things regarding recycling,” said Matthew Shapiro, associate professor of political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Shapiro, who has studied municipal recycling practices, said the city isn’t set up to follow the more successful enforcement models in other cities that inspect all properties or require owners to file recycling reports because officials haven’t dedicated the necessary resources.
“The city hasn’t prioritized recycling enough to develop the infrastructure and manpower for enforcement. No one is taking things seriously,” Shapiro said.
Recycling nationwide has become more expensive in recent years as China, long a major market for processing recyclables, has limited the types of material it will accept. That move has prompted many smaller cities to drop recycling altogether, experts say.
Rahm's record, Lightfoot's promises
Emanuel has a spotty record of environmental enforcement during his tenure. A BGA investigation found the number of city citations for environmental violations dropped to one-third the number issued under Daley after Emanuel eliminated the city’s Department of Environment in a cost-cutting move. During his tenure, hazardous materials inspections fell by more than 90 percent and air quality inspections plunged nearly 70 percent.
Emanuel also took the controversial step of partially privatizing the city’s Blue Cart recycling program through a “managed competition,” pitting two private companies against city sanitation crews to pick up recycling from small residential properties. Over the next seven years, the city paid tens of millions of dollars to the two companies as Chicago’s residential recycling rate dropped to the lowest of any major city in the country.
Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said she sees Lightfoot’s promise to reestablish the city’s environment department as a promising step forward.
“I think we’ve all been really disappointed in the way the enforcement has gone,” Walling said. “I’m just kind of at this point looking forward to see how a new mayor will take this on.”
In an interview with the BGA during her campaign, Lightfoot said she would revamp recycling in Chicago, bringing stricter oversight of the private contractors in the Blue Cart program, and stressed the need to focus on enforcement of recycling in big buildings.
“I don’t think that we’re doing nearly what we need to be doing with businesses and other commercial properties to make sure if they are also recycling. It doesn’t seem to happen,” Lightfoot said. “That’s something that’s been grossly lacking, and that’s one of the many, many areas of has to change going forward.”
Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.