by Mick Dumke
Last week a couple of Chicago aldermen proposed fining suburbanites caught trying to recycle in the city.
Aldermen Lona Lane and Virginia Rugai, of the 18th and 19th wards, say they’re tired of hearing from constituents who drive to the city’s recycling drop-off sites and find the bins spilling over. “A lot of times it's overflowing and it’s because we don't get a pick-up, but I just figured if [suburban residents] don't use it, it would be better for us,” Lane told Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times.
Rugai added that in an ideal world everyone would recycle, but she's up for fining suburbanites if their drop-offs become "an obstacle for city residents."
I’ll put this as fairly as I can: their proposal is inane.
Worse, it shows the backward view of recycling that’s hampered the city for years.
The aldermen do deserve credit for identifying the problem: there’s a greater demand for recycling services than the city has been willing or able to supply.
Just last week the council held a bitchfest during which aldermen complained that their neighborhoods don’t have the blue cart program yet—and that their constituents are driving them nuts about it. Forty-fifth Ward alderman Pat Levar can’t even get through a steak dinner without being pestered.
But even if the blue cart program were expanded citywide, most Chicagoans—those who live in multi-unit condo or apartment buildings—wouldn’t be affected because private companies pick up their trash, not city workers. A city ordinance requires that these buildings have their own recycling programs, but it’s almost never enforced.
The city’s drop-off centers were supposed to offer another recycling option that didn’t cost the city much. And they’ve been used—far more than the city has been prepared for. Every time I’ve taken stuff to the one in my ward, the 49th, it’s been overflowing.
I would be tempted to blame rogue recyclers from nearby Evanston except that (1) Evanston, like most suburbs, has its own recycling program that appears to work much better than Chicago’s, and (2) other people encounter overflowing bins in parts of town that don’t border the burbs.
Rugai and Lane have overlooked an additional point—recycling isn’t just a service. It’s a revenue-generator. The city currently gets paid about $36 for every ton of recyclables it sells to recycling firms. So if suburbanites sneak into Chicago to dump their magazines and plastic bottles into city-owned bins, they’re actually helping underwrite the cost of waste disposal here. Not to mention the fact that they’re doing the right thing by trying to keep that stuff out of landfills.
If the aldermen want to make it easier for city residents recycle, they can press city officials to empty the recycling bins more frequently AND put more bins out there. While they’re at it, they could get the city and Park District to put more recycling bins on city streets and in city parks, the cost of which could be offset by the extra money generated from selling the additional tons of recycled materials.
Of course, all of this is contingent on political will. And that’s in short supply.
The city keeps claiming it doesn’t have the money to put a real recycling program in place for everyone. Back when it did have the money, Mayor Daley squandered it on the expensive, unproven, and ultimately unsuccessful blue bag program. Despite costing tens of millions of dollars a year, the program failed to keep most of the city’s easily recyclable waste out of landfills.
But it did do one thing well: it convinced tens of thousands of Chicagoans that there was no point in even trying to recycle.
Over time most recycling programs actually save money, since they defray the costs of landfilling. Cutting the amount of garbage we produce would be even more efficient. But unlike the leadership of other major cities, the Daley administration has never been willing to make a commitment to a progressive waste management system that people can understand and feel invested in. Until it does it’s going to continue to send the message that recycling is a burden and that easily recyclable materials are nothing more than waste.
This kind of thinking is what’s costing taxpayers money and good service.
Last Saturday my girlfriend and I decided to sit down and chill next to the lagoon in Humboldt Park for a few minutes. It was warm and sunny out. Dragonflies buzzed over the water and a family of ducks swam right up to us to say hello. And I struggled to take my eyes off the trash strewn all around us—the plastic water bottle in the reeds, the submerged Corona bottle on the lagoon floor, the plastic six-pack rings and empty beer cans on the walking path along the bank.
I don’t understand littering and I never will. Fortunately it seemed that most people had made it the extra twenty feet to the trash bins.
But much of the stuff in the trash bins really belonged in recycling bins, including dozens of bottles and cans that could easily be processed and reused in some form. Too many people don’t think about that stuff being worth anything—it’s garbage and if we’re lucky it ends up in the landfill instead of the lagoon. Their habits won't change unless the alternative is clear and easy.