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June 2007

Recycling in Chicago on the upswing

An expanding and efficient recycling infrastructure requires a large city or county to have the systems in place to collect material from residential, commercial and institutional sectors so that it can thrive.

Multiple steps are necessary to ensure the majority of the waste stream is recycled. The City of Chicago is definitely on the right track via its pilot programs and determination to not be left behind as advances are made on the west coast.

Michael J. Picardi

“Our goal is a 25 percent diversion rate of the total waste stream,” says Mike Picardi, commissioner for the Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS). “We are at 18 percent, including yard waste, under our current program. Our goal is to work with businesses and multi-unit buildings to get them to the 25 percent level.

“For the past decade, our goal has been to pull out as many recyclables as we can,” he adds. “We are trying to get Chicagoans into the habit of recycling and are frequently coming up with additional ways for people to recycle. We recently opened 15 large-scale regional drop-off centers that Chicagoans can visit during daylight hours to drop off their recyclables.”

­Currently, the city relies on a blue bag program that recycles bottles, cans, paper, glass, plastics and seasonal yard waste. Blue bags are sorted at four centers, three of which are owned by the city and another by Allied Waste. Allied Waste processes the materials, for which it is given ownership and sells to various companies.

The DSS is responsible for residential garbage collection – single-family homes and buildings that have up to four units. Allied Waste and other companies are responsible for commercial and multi-unit residential garbage collection and recycling. The residential sector is responsible for 15 to 25 percent of the waste stream, with multi-residential housing, commercial and institutional accounting for the remainder.

However, by the end of 2007, 7 of the city’s 50 wards will have a separate recycling collection system in place.

“With this pilot program we are going to roll out to approximately 80,000 households,” says Picardi. “We have already issued residents at no charge, separate 95-gallon blue carts where they can put their commodities to be picked up by a separate truck.

“We are trying to make it as easy as possible for the residents to recycle and this seems to be a best practice in the recycling industry to get those rates up,” he adds. “What we are seeing is a recycling rate in the area of 20 percent and that is without yard waste. With yard waste, I think we are going to surpass 30 percent in these pilot areas.

“We are collecting plastics - #1 through #7, excluding polystyrene; and aseptic is included in that,” he adds. “We were not able to capture that before. We are really starting to diversify the types of material that we can keep out of the waste stream.”

Residents in these wards are still being asked to place their yard waste in bags for a separate collection between April and November.

The $2.8 million program has required the city to hire additional personnel and purchase extra equipment.

While landfill space is becoming rare in jurisdictions along the east and west coast, it is not a problem in the Midwest.

“It has become more expensive,” says Picardi. “We haven’t felt the impact in the Midwest that cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and New York have experienced. Landfill rates have stayed pretty consistent in the Midwest. They have gone up a little bit here and there, but nothing like you see on the east and west coasts.”

Chris Sauve, the DSS’s chief officer for recycling, would like to have a program that diverts as many commodities as possible. He stresses that Chicago, unlike other large American cities, features many homes with varying sizes of front and back yards, creating a major amount of yard waste.

“We are really looking to divert, most if not all, of that yard waste from the landfill because it takes up so much space,” he says. “The DSS is also responsible for the Bureau of Forestry. The Bureau maintains the city’s 500,000 trees. We recycle all that debris, about 1,500 tons a month, from tree trimming or removing. It all gets chipped and we sell that debris to landscapers.”

“We have a very good turnout,” says Picardi, “and we give people mulch from the trees for free for use as a groundcover.”

The city has received proposals to set up biomass power plants.

“It is something that the Department of the Environment (DOE) has been looking at relatively recently with the Zero-Waste plan that they are trying to develop,” says Picardi, “and to see what kind of impact a biomass or waste energy plant facility will have on the city. We’ve looked at converting food scraps into energy as well. The green bin system that the City of Toronto has looks interesting and once we get a city-wide collection just for traditional commodities going, probably food waste would be the next step.”


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