Project description

Chicago’s recycling program for 20 years was notorious: inefficient services, rampant organized crime involvement and citizens who were disconnected and disengaged. No wonder experts nationwide said Chicago’s program was among the worst.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised change in 2011 by forcing city garbage haulers to compete against private firms, with his administration determining who did the best job.

When Madison Hopkins, a reporter for the Chicago nonprofit news organization the Better Government Association, checked on how well Emanuel’s plans worked, she found that not only had the mayor’s administration done a poor job keeping his promises, his changes actually exacerbated the problem.

She quickly discovered the city had almost no data to compare how well the private and public haulers were doing. Rather than determining a winner as promised, the city wasn’t even keeping score.

Of the records she did receive, she found that under Emanuel, the city’s recycling rate had actually gotten worse, dropping to the lowest for any major American city — 9 percent — compared to, for instance, 80 percent in San Jose. What’s more, she obtained a massive but convoluted city database that recorded every time a garbage crew deemed a recycling bin had been “contaminated,” which meant the crew said it contained non-recyclable garbage and had to be tossed into a landfill.

Buried in that massive database was information that really made Hopkins’ story take off because when she took that data and mapped it out, she found that two areas of the city had extraordinarily high rates of “contamination” and both were run by Waste Management, one of the private hauling firms.

What she knew was that Waste Management owns landfills and stands to benefit financially if material is thrown into its dumps rather than being recycled. In many cases, Waste Management was being paid twice to handle the same trash — once to deem it wasn’t recyclable and once to receive it as garbage.

When she delved even deeper, the story became even more stunning. Even though Waste Management oversaw only half of the city, 90 percent of all bins tagged contaminated came from their areas, a statistical unlikelihood. In parts of the city, your recycling being handled correctly literally depended more on what side of the street you lived on than how well of a job you did handling your recycling.

What makes this project innovative?

The story was the first time any media outlet had ever detailed the data displaying the inherent conflict of interest that arises when waste haulers who make money operating for-profit landfills also oversee city recycling services. Recycling is one of the most important programs residents engage in to combat climate change and one they consider among those most vital for a government to do. When citizens have no faith in how those programs are handled, they deserve answers about how those programs are run. The project also allowed Chicago residents to see how often their recycling was rejected in an easy fashion.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The investigation had quick impact. The BGA presented a heat map that showed the discrepancy and allowed users to look up any address, including their own, to see how many times the bins had been labeled contaminated. Other media outlets followed the original story and pressure mounted. Weeks after the BGA story was published, in the face of calls for reform by aldermen, Mayor Emanuel’s administration promised it would begin rewriting contracts and beefing up oversight to keep better track of how bins are deemed contaminated and where it goes. This was the highest traffic story for the year with high numbers for engagement. The average user spent 3:31 on the story and nearly 2:00 on the interactive map, an incredible engagement metric that demonstrated how effective the presentation was at engaging users.

Source and methodology

The data was released following a public records request to Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation. Similar data was collected from the related agencies for all top 10 population cities in the United States. The data were then compared to understand the residential recycling rate in all markets.

Technologies Used

Python, Pandas, QGIS, PostgreSQL, Geopandas, PostGIS, MapBox

Project members

Madison Hopkins, Patrick Judge


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