Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Reader on Recycling

When I saw this story on the front page of the Chicago Reader, I wanted to bend down and hug the squat little distribution box just north of my el stop. Upon further reading (and it's quite a hefty article, at least by free newspaper standards), I began to wonder whether its author was making legitimate complaints or just adding fuel to this already fiery debate. I've included some of the most telling excerpts below, with minimal commentary, so readers can formulate their own opinions on the matter. The article opens:

If you live in a residential building with four or fewer units, you're supposed to put your recyclables into blue carts and set them out by your trash every two weeks—though ... in most neighborhoods there are no blue carts yet. [Or] you can take your recyclables to one of the city's 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren't already too full.

[But] if you live in a building with more than four units, your garbage is picked up by private waste haulers ... If your hauler isn't recycling, you can press the building owner to comply with the law, but he doesn't really have to fear being fined for violating it. Or you can take your stuff to one of those 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren't already too full.

If you live adjacent to a neighborhood that has the blue carts, maybe you can slip your recycling into the ones across the street, if they're not already too full—but don't get caught, because it's illegal. If you live next to a park, or visit the airports regularly, maybe you can take your materials to their plentiful recycling bins.

Or you can do what most Chicagoans do: say to hell with it.

Confusing, right? I think so, too. A good deal of funds allotted for recycling have been spent on studies, which show that only 8% of waste from city garbage haulers is diverted from landfills (private sector haulers fare slightly better at 19%). Studies also project that this number could easily be raised to 40% in both public and private sectors. So why is Chicago's recycling program still such a failure?

In April, city officials quietly released the results of a pair of studies they'd commissioned to help figure out how to reduce the amount of garbage produced in Chicago. One, a "waste characterization study," sampled trash around the city to determine what Chicagoans are throwing out. It found that we produced about 7.7 million tons of waste in 2007, most of it metals, paper, food and yard waste, plastics, used clothing, and construction and demolition (C & D) debris like concrete and steel.

The other, a "waste diversion study," analyzed what's happening to the city's garbage after it's picked up. It determined that most C & D debris is recycled and reused—as much as 65 percent, the result of a 2005 city ordinance as well as demand for the materials in the marketplace.

But the study also found that even with the high recycling rate for C & D debris, most of Chicago's waste ends up in landfills: 56 percent of metals from homes and businesses, 69 percent of discarded paper, 96 percent of food and yard waste, 96 percent of plastics, and almost all clothing.

The study authors, from a consulting and engineering firm called CDM, offered city officials some straightforward recommendations: offer blue carts citywide, provide more opportunities for residents to recycle clothing and compost organic waste, launch education and outreach programs, and start enforcing recycling laws already on the books. (The studies cost $494,250, about half of which was covered by grants, the rest by funds drawn from the city budget.)

Enforce laws already on the books. That seems obvious to me. So obvious, in fact, that I bristle every time I hear lawmakers debating issues into the ground for which practical (albeit unenforced) solutions already exist. Even more alarming to me, though, are these findings: almost all clothing is tossed instead of being donated!?! 56% of metals, 69% of paper, and 96% of plastics are NOT being recycled!?! And 96% of food and yard waste is NOT being composted?!? Not cool, Chicago. Not cool.

According to the study results released by the city this spring, just 14 percent of the city's waste is produced by the homes served by city garbage crews. About 61 percent comes from the C & D sector, whose efforts are one of the city's few recycling success stories.

The other 25 percent comes from businesses and what the city refers to as high-density residential buildings—those with more than four units, for which garbage collection and recycling are already in the private sector. For the last 20 years recycling in these buildings has been an even lower priority for the Daley administration.

In 1993 the City Council passed the Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Ordinance ... It requires that building owners set up recycling for at least three kinds of materials. If they don't, the city can issue warnings, impose fines of $100 a day, or take away the business licenses of retailers and offices ... In practice, however, the ordinance is almost meaningless, because city officials quickly decided that they didn't want to alienate property owners and building managers by enforcing it.

Well, so much for that idea. The article attempts to leave the Chicago's readers with a glimmer of hope in the closing paragraphs:

In lieu of curbside programs or a coherent high-density policy, the city has created 33 recycling drop-off centers that are well used, to the point where they're often overflowing. In fact, two south-side aldermen recently proposed fining suburbanites who sneak into Chicago to dump their recyclables at city-owned drop-off facilities. From the beginning of the year through the end of May, 1,900 tons of recyclables have been left at the sites, according to Matt Smith.

Recent changes to city and state law have made composting more feasible. The city's website offers tutorials, even for apartment dwellers, and several new commercial composting ventures are opening on the far south side. But for many people—even those with a deep interest in recycling—the city's current web of programs and possibilities is too difficult to navigate.

And where will that leave us, Chicago? Before too long, I imagine it will leave us wallowing in our own waste, because we've been clogging up the landfills with recyclable materials for far too long.

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