The City Needs to Get to Work on Cleaning Up its Recycling Program

The BGA Policy Team highlights a way forward for the City of Chicago’s recycling program.

A recently published report by the BGA’s Investigative Team highlighted the fact that one of the city’s outside waste haulers is diverting tons of what it says is contaminated recycling into landfills it owns. Waste Management, Inc. tags recycling as “contaminated” at a much higher rate than city haulers or Lakeshore Recycling Systems does. Waste Management, Lakeshore Recycling Systems, and City of Chicago municipal workers are all part of a “managed competition” that was started by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011, but, as was uncovered by the BGA Investigative Team, an evaluation of the competing service providers never was completed.

The BGA’s Policy Team, which operates autonomously from the Investigative Team, is calling for the city to start collecting data in order to follow through on the analysis it promised it would conduct when it began the program six years ago.The city needs to evaluate this instance of managed competition in a thoughtful and transparent manner. In order to do that, city officials must begin collecting data on its recycling program and they need to commit to better tracking and auditing of the work of the three service providers.

We are, therefore, calling on Emanuel and officials from the Department Streets and Sanitation to do the following:

1. Work with ward superintendents to implement a permanent auditing program for contaminated bins before December.

2. Release a thorough report before May 2019 that evaluates the managed competition in recycling launched in 2011 and lays out a path forward for the city. The report must be published on the city's website and include, at a minimum:

  • An update on the current goals of the recycling program, including the percent of waste the city expects to be diverting and by what year it aims to reach this goal.
  • An explanation of the criteria used to evaluate recycling providers.
  • A detailed breakdown of the cost-per-ton to recycle for each of the providers.
  • The recycling rates in each competitive area.
  • The accumulated results of audits of contaminated bins for each of the competitors.
  • A detailed description of the educational initiatives pursued by each company in their service areas.
  • An accounting of any conflicts-of-interest and incentives the providers might have and a description of how those conflicts are managed.

With contracts expiring in July 2019, it is imperative that the evaluation be completed so the recycling community, taxpayers, and the public have an opportunity to evaluate the results before any contracts are renewed.

We have formulated this call for a thorough audit and evaluation with experts and advocates in the waste management and sustainability field including the Chicago Recycling Coalition and the Illinois Environmental Council. In addition to calling for Emanuel’s commitment, the BGA’s Policy Team also is asking every mayoral candidate to affirm their support for an evaluation of this managed competition program prior to renewing any contracts.

About the Author

Rachel L. Leven

Rachel Leven is the BGA’s policy manager focusing on Chicago and Cook County. Before joining the BGA, Leven ran communications for the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG), a nationally renowned municipal oversight agency.