A Guide to Navigating Chicago’s Privatized Recycling System — Free Spirit Media

For Chicagoans, the recycling process is often shrouded in mystery. COVID-19 has caused an overall increase in personal waste, but recycling rates in Chicago have been declining for years. Urban legends have spread about how some recycling bins go straight to landfills, and the search for answers raises even more questions about what can and cannot be safely recycled.

Is this a problem specific to our city? And what can we do to make recycling easier for our residents? The Real Chi decided to dig a little deeper into these topics and uncover some of the truth in the murky recycling business.

  1. If a container of recycled goods contains non-recyclable materials, chances are the entire bin will be thrown away.

    1. You may have heard this rumor before, and it can be confirmed to be mostly true. When multiple non-recycled materials appear in a recycling container, that container can be considered “contaminated” and the whole thing discarded (i.e. sent to landfill).

  2. If you want to make sure your recycled products don’t end up in landfill, you can take them to a factory yourself

  3. You need to wash or clean your recycled materials

    • Having trash or debris still attached to recycled items — such as food stuck inside cans — can disqualify an entire recycling container as contaminated. The only notable exception to this are peanut butter jars, which may still contain product. Waste Management, Chicago’s recycling service, reports that about half of their materials are contaminated.

  4. It’s not always clear what you can and can’t recycle

    • Recycling rules often change as we become more aware of what objects cause problems in systems, which is often difficult for the average recycler to predict. There are local online resources to tell you whether an item should be thrown in the blue or black bin, and we’ve put some of the most common offenders on this list for good measure.

Recyclable in Chicago: glass, junk mail, aluminum foil

Not recyclable in Chicago: pizza boxes, straws, coffee cups, plastic bags

  1. The government does not treat our recycled waste – private companies do

    • Part of the reason our recycling systems seem so hazy is that they’re run by private companies that do the transportation for the city. The two main ones in Chicago are Sims Metal Management and Waste Management, which last year was accused by Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th arrondissement) from holding an unfair monopoly on the local recycling market after their recent acquisition of a small business.

  2. Our recycling system does not meet the standards of other major US cities

    • Recycling effectiveness is often measured by the percentage of households that participate, which is around 8% in Chicago. That’s less than half of New York’s 18% and Los Angeles’ 20%. Reasons for low turnout may include lack of confidence in the recycling system and confusion about eligible materials. Additionally, recycling activists said Chicago was much less transparent about its waste data than other cities.

  3. Chicago lacks a formal recycling and overall sustainability watchdog

    • Eight years ago, then mayor Rahm Emanuel notoriously thrown the city’s environmental department. No governing body has since been formed to take its place, although campaigners are proposing its resurrection or the introduction of a sustainability ministry. Chicago is the only one of the 10 major US cities that does not have such a governing body.

Knowing the rules of recycling can make the practice less complicated, but the journey does not end there. Recycling is an ongoing effort that requires our daily involvement, and the results are worth it. Now that you know the rules, educate your friends and family to try to keep the cycle going.

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