Chicago’s recycling rate, at 9%, falls far behind all major metropolitan areas in the country – the next lowest, Houston, is almost twice that at 17%. Why is Chicago so bad at recycling, and what super solutions can the city implement to improve?

In October of 2018, a Better Government Association (BGA) published their investigation into Chicago’s  handling of waste and recycling. BGA revealed that Waste Management, Inc. holds both recycling contracts throughout the Chicagoland area while maintaining for-profit landfills where 15% of Chicago’s waste is diverted. There are several recycling contractors in the city, and they maintain the discretion to label a recycling bin as “grossly contaminated”. Reporters found that 90% of recycling bins labeled as “grossly contaminated”, was done so by Waste Management. This creates a scenario where Waste Managegment is paid twice – providing incentive to tag the bins as contaminated.– sending those bins to be sent to landfills and potentially filling their pockets

So, what’s the problem in Chicago? Is it simply Windy City bureaucracy, or does the city fundamentally think about waste with little concern? I’d argue, that yes bureaucracy plays a role in low recycling rates. However, Chicago simply does not think about its waste management strategy effectively. Simply put, Chicago’s wasteful. Let’s Change it.


Following are basic techniques and super solutions used across the globe that Chicago could implement to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills:

  • Ban on plastic bags – San Francisco
  • Fines administered to landlords and homeowners if recycling totes are contaminated – San Francisco
    • Step 1) Provide a warning and check back in to see if contamination has dissipated
    • Step 2) Follow through with significant fines to landlord/homeowner if contamination continues.
      • Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised he would fine violators, but after two years only handed out three fines totaling $750
    • Implement composting – Portland, Iowa City, Ann Arbor, San Francisco
    • Cut waste pick-up rates, forcing people to think about the rate at which they throw things away – Ljubljana, Slovenia
    • Weekly workshops that teach people how to fix broken household items – Ljubljana, Slovenia
    • Refilling stations for water bottles – San Jose
    • Waste-to-energy projects in which waste is turned into biofuel – Los Angeles
      • This involves anaerobic digestion, fermentation and it eliminates the need for incinerators
    • Process residual waste into solid fuel –Ljubljana, Slovenia
    • Place waste and recycling bins at every intersection
    • Educate the public and gain their support
      • Implement programs in schools to teach children what is recyclable
      • Create “no-waste” lunch days
      • Advertise on public transportation the benefits of recycling
      • Label recycling bins with what can and cannot be recycled

Author — Sydney Weiss