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.