The Report on Chicago’s Waste

Day 222 – This past July, Chicago released a 64 page Waste Strategy report on existing waste conditions in the city. As I read through the document I made some notes that I found worth sharing.

  1. In 2020, the City of Chicago generated 4.13 million tons of materials. That includes waste from residents, institutional, commercial and industrial.
  2. Annually, approximately 40,000 to 44,000 tons of yard waste are generated from low density residential structures in Chicago, but very little has been collected through 311 pickup requests.
  3. High contamination rates strain recycling equipment and lessen the value of recycled commodities.
  4. From 2015 to 2020, there was an average of over 75,000 tons of materials collected each month; an average of 9 percent of which was diverted from landfills.
  5. Private companies and high-density residential buildings are not required to report their rates for garbage collection service.
  6. While some service areas show relatively consistent performance over time, there is a general trend of declining performance across all areas (relating to recycling).
  7. CPS manages waste and recycling services for 642 schools.
  8. Increased material diversion through reuse and recycling has potential to create more jobs than would be created through disposal.
  9. The Illinois Commodity/Waste Generation and Characterization Study Update published in 2015 calculated the market value of recyclable materials, including subcategories of paper, plastic, glass, and metal, that were ending up in landfills. The study found that the value of these materials was more than $360 million.
  10. The study found that slightly over a quarter of material placed in Blue Cart bins is unrecyclable contamination, including recyclable materials in plastic bags.
  11. Making cans from recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy and generates 90 percent less green house gas emissions than virgin stock.
  12. In 2004, there were eight active landfills in the region, and as of 2020, there are only four. These four landfills had an average life expectancy of 12.4 years as of January 2020. There are no active landfills in Chicago or Cook County.
  13. In addition to landfills in Illinois, Chicago’s waste is disposed across state lines in Indiana. In 2019, over 2.6 million tons of waste generated in Cook County (including the city of Chicago) were sent to six landfill locations in Indiana.
  14. On average, each Chicago resident generates a little over 3 pounds of waste per day at home, or a little under 3,000 pounds of waste per year for each Chicago household.

Here’s a list of things the city offers that you might not know about.

  1. Since 2014, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), in partnership with Seven Generations Ahead and Lakeshore Recycling Systems, has been expanding a commercial composting pilot program to reduce organic waste, improve purchasing, and provide waste diversion education to CPS students, faculty, and staff. The program has expanded to 14 CPS schools and (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic conditions) resulted in over 2,500 pounds of materials diverted from landfills every day.
  2. Yard waste collection is available to Chicago residents through the 311-request program.
  3. Composting is available through commercial composting companies, Illinois Food Scrap Coalition and Zero Waste Chicago.
  4. In 2020, the Chicago Department of Public Health and Department of Streets and Sanitation introduced a pilot program offering rotating e-waste drop off service at district sanitation offices.
  5. The Chicago Department of Public Health (in partnership with the Chicago Police Department) provides for pharmaceutical disposal at police stations across the city. In addition, there are secure drop off sites located at hospital centers, select pharmacies, and at water reclamation plants managed by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD).
  6. Foam packaging and food service containers are not accepted in Blue Cart bins or City drop off locations. Dart Container Corporation offers free drop off collection at 7575 S. Kostner Avenue for all polystyrene foam except for packing peanuts, which can often be reused for shipping.
  7. Shredded paper is not accepted in Blue Cart bins because it clings to and contaminates other items and does not respond to recycling equipment like whole paper. The City, Aldermen, and other organizations sponsor events for personal document shredding and collection (or collection of pre-shredded paper) for residents.
  8. Flexible plastic film, including plastic bags and common packing materials, can become tangled and damage recycling equipment, and is not accepted in Blue Cart bins. Recyclables placed in Blue Carts should also not be bagged. This material can be recycled if collected separately, and several Chicago grocery stores and businesses host collection sites for plastic film. A list of participating businesses by zip code can be found at
  9. Chicago Public Libraries have hosted innovative Repair Cafes and other programs to better manage Chicago’s materials.

Here’s some ideas of how the city wants to reduce our waste.

  1. Reframe Chicago’s materials as resources, instead of waste.
  2. Identify opportunities to include goal setting, metrics, and data sharing to demonstrate progress and increase transparency.
  3. Equip consumers with the education and tolls needed to drive innovation in evolving waste systems.
  4. Increase transparency in the process and build trust among Chicago’s residents more efficiently.
  5. Shift the cultural norms towards circularity and away from traditional disposal models.
  6. Maintaining clear and consistent messaging around recycling contamination.
  7. Developing a directory of participating retail take-back options for e-waste and household hazardous waste in Chicago.
  8. Establishing a revenue-sharing partnership with a textile recycling company for collection of clothes, shoes, and other textiles otherwise ending up in landfills.

Chicago has a long way to go when it comes to sustainability. However, I do believe we have the potential to become better and even become a leader on the ways a large city addresses waste, reuse, recycling, and building a circular economy. It won’t be easy and it will take residents, commercial business, industrial corporations and institutions to help improve our current conditions.

Tomorrow, sustainable school bag options.

Trash Bags: It’s complicated

Day 12 – I was planning on writing about how I ditched the plastic trash bags and switched to compostable trash bags. I was going to go on and on about what an awesome alternative these bags are and encourage everyone to make the change. It seems like a no brainer that a plant-based trash bag would be better for the environment than a plastic trash bag. However, as I delved further into the subject, I found out that it wasn’t that simple. Just because something is labeled biodegradable or compostable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best option for the environment.

Here is a short explanation of the various types of bag:

Compostable – Compostable bags are great if going to a compost pile, where they can breakdown properly under the right conditions. If a compostable bag goes to a landfill, there is no oxygen, microorganisms or heat to move the process along. They end up not breaking down and mummifying in the landfill.

Biodegradable – Like compostable bags, biodegradable bags needs oxygen to break down properly. If placed into a landfill they will break down anaerobically and creates methane gas, which is not good for the environment.

Degradable – Degradable bags are mostly oil-based and can break down in an anaerobic conditions. Unfortunately, they break down into microscopic pieces that can be harmful.

Not using a bag – Most municipalities require residents to bag their garbage. Some do not. The biggest problem with this option is the likelihood that loose garbage will have a better chance to blow around and become a pollutant.

So, what is the best option? Sadly, there is no perfect solution. Though, I was sure hoping for one.

Here are some options, not perfect, but better than plastic bags made from non-renewable resources.

  1. Recycled Plastic Bags – The Grove sells a 100% recycled plastic bag. Though made from plastic it is not produced using fossil fuels.
  2. Recycled Paper Bags – If you’re composting, all of your wet garbage has an alternative place to go, so a paper bag is an option for your dry garbage.
  3. Use what you have – If you already have large bags that are going to end up in the garbage, then consider using them. I read about using large dog food bags. Having two dogs that eat a large bag of food a month, this will be a good option for us.

The best overall option is to produce less garbage. This seems like an easy solution, but is by far the most challenging of all.

If you would like to read more about the subject, PBS reported on the topic back in 2019.

Tomorrow, reusable produce bags and the sad realization that it has taken me this long to start using them.