Compost

Compost (RedEye/Lenny Gilmore)

When Holly Worthy moved to Bucktown from Des Moines, Iowa last year, recycling her used cans, bottles and paper goods was second nature.

But Worthy, 25, and her partner, Conor Altier, 28, observed that for many of their neighbors and friends in Chicago, recycling wasn't as intuitive, they said.

"A lot of our friends don't recycle at all," Worthy said. "When they would first come over, they would throw their beer bottles and cans in the trash. Now they throw it in our recycling bins, and it's kind of an education and learning opportunity for everybody."

It hasn't been easy being green in Chicago, which produces close to 950,000 tons of waste a year and only recently started building out its program to reuse some of that waste. Local recycling options range from city-orchestrated, bi-weekly pick-up for some homes to non-existent options for others.

"You take what you can get," said Altier, who has lived in Chicago for six years in a mix of apartment buildings that encouraged recycling and ones that didn't. In one South Loop space, he said, "It was not even an option."

Recycling has gained cultural capital across the country in recent years as government programs and environmental advocates have pushed for people to adopt environmentally sustainable waste-reduction practices in their businesses and homes. More than half of Millennials say they recycle "everything they possibly can," and make a strong effort to separate their recyclables from their trash, according to a 2013 DDB Worldwide Communications survey.

The city offers recycling pick-up to roughly 600,000 households through its blue cart program, while other residential and commercial buildings are required by law to provide their own recycling drop-off and pick-up options. Some critics of the city's program say this disparity has kept Chicago lagging behind other major cities' efforts to reduce waste.

"People who come to Chicago would ask, 'How do you do recycling?' And people would say, 'You know, you really don't,'" said Mike Nowak, the president of the nonprofit Chicago Recycling Coalition, which advocates for better municipal recycling practices. "We're getting better, but it's slow. There's a lot of room for improvement."

Chicago first began rolling out its blue cart program to a handful of neighborhoods in 2007, but the program was slow to expand to the rest of the city until recently due to the city's economic woes. Last October the Department of Streets and Sanitation finished allocating blue carts to 600,000 eligible homes, which include single-family homes and two- and three-flats.

Larger apartment complexes are required by law to provide recycling options to residents along with trash collection, but many don't. And according to some city officials and environmental advocates, the law is not being enforced strongly enough to make an impact.

According to data compiled by the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation, Chicago's rate of waste recycled through the blue cart program as opposed to going to landfills was just over 12 percent in 2013—an amount that saved the city $3.7 million in waste disposal fees.

But the newness of the city's program makes it hard to compare to those of coastal cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, which have long been considered waste-reduction pioneers. More than a decade ago, San Francisco's board of supervisors pledged to have the city recycling more than 75 percent of its waste by 2010, a goal it has exceeded, and 100 percent of its waste by 2020.

According to Chris Sauve, Chicago's recycling program director, local residential recycling has not expanded as quickly as it could have because of the economics of waste disposal in the Midwest, where space in landfills is relatively cheap, and the budgetary pressures brought on by the 2008 financial crisis.

"Zero waste is definitely something we should be striving for," he said. "Our big focus right now is trying to get people to use the blue carts as much as possible and recycle right."

Some Chicagoans have taken a creative approach to the project of reducing waste when they see local progarms falling short.

Amber Gribben, 38, of Ukrainian Village, sees at-home worm composting as a solution to reducing food waste, which often makes up the majority of a typical household's trash in Chicago.

Since 2008, Gribben, co-founder of the worm composting business, Urban Worm Girl, has helped outfit several thousand Chicagoland kitchens with worm composting bins. They can compost up to five pounds of food waste in one day.

"It's a ton of food waste that is being saved from going into the landfill, which is not an ideal place for food waste," Gribben said.

To Nowak of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, the best way to boost the city's residential recycling rates is to encourage people—especially landlords—to take extra steps to provide recycling in their buildings and then use it.

"We've got a city full of people who became convinced that recycling doesn't work because it didn't for a long time," he said. "The job now is to educate those people."

 

Recycling in Chicago, by the numbers:

61,000 – tons of recycling the city collected in 2012

85,000 – tons of recycling the city collected in 2013

120,000 – tons of recycling the city expects to collect in 2014

600,000 – number of residences served by the city's blue cart recycling program

$46 – average cost of sending one ton of municipal waste to a landfill

$3.7 million – money the city saved last year by diverting waste away from landfills through its recycling program

2/3 – portion of the city's recycling program is privatized

$12 million – money the city has saved annually since partially privatizing the program in 2011

Source: Department of Streets and Sanitation officials

 

rcromidas@tribune.com