Chicago curbside recycling programs play catch up

Chicago curbside recycling programs play catch up

Chicago resident Michael Murphy grew up in a mandatory recycling city, so separating and recycling waste became second nature for him.

He expected to find a similar program when he moved to Chicago.

“This city has such a reputation for green innovation that I was surprised it had such a less well-developed program,” he says. “I’ve lived here 13 years, and this will be the first year I’ve had curbside service.”

Recycling service in the Chicagoland area depends heavily on where you live. Many villages and suburbs offer curbside recycling, usually handled by private contractors.

In Chicago itself, private and public recycling contractors serve 240,000 households, but 360,000 households lack any curbside program and must bring their recyclables to one of 37 drop-off points around the city.

The city instituted its Blue Cart Recycling Program in 2007 with the intention of expanding citywide by 2011, but the economic crash put much of the recycling plan on hold. “Commodities prices dropped, and we weren’t able to fund the expansion,” says Catherine Game, a consultant for the city sanitation division.

Last year, the city began a “managed competition” program, in which different recycling districts are handled by city sanitation workers and two private contractors — Waste Management (whose Antioch, Ill. location is highly rated) and West Chicago-based Sims Metal Management.

This spring, city officials will assess the recycling program and determine the next direction. “We have this national reputation as the city that can’t recycle,” says Michael Nowak, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. “So we’re holding our breath to see what happens next.”

Most Angie’s List members in the Chicago area who submitted reports about recycling describe positive experiences. City workers service member Kathleen Mobley’s home in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.

She calls her service nearly perfect and appreciates that the city accepts a wide range of materials mixed together in a single-stream bin. “You don’t have to separate anything out,” she says. “My parents live in another state and can’t recycle wax containers, but the city accepts ours.”

The city’s general fund finances waste hauling and recycling. According to the mayor’s office, city-serviced carts cost $3.75 per pickup, while private contractors provide pickup for about $2.70 per cart — both numbers down from $4.77 prior to the managed competition. Game says this savings allowed the city to expand blue cart recycling to 20,000 more homes this spring.

Even so, Chicago trails behind its neighbors. Most of the city’s suburbs, including the four largest, offer curbside recycling. Highly rated ARC Disposal & Recycling of Mouth Prospect, Ill., for example, provides service to 80,000 Chicagoland households in 17 municipalities, including Roselle and Schaumburg.

Member Jenny Selle praises her curbside program in Gurnee, provided by Waste Management and included in her trash collection fee. “I like the simplicity,” she says. “The plastics, glass, metal, paper and cardboard go straight to the green container and to the curbside every week.”

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