Help us pass Chicago’s new recycling ordinance!

Published on Jul 15, 2016 by Claire Micklin

UPDATE: New Ordinance Passes! The revised recycling ordinance moved on from the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection on July 18 and passed City Council on July 20. Thank you to everyone who contacted their Alderman!

After the launch of My Building Doesn’t Recycle, an improved recycling ordinance is up for debate in Chicago City Council on July 18th. Help get it passed by contacting your Alderman!


My Building Doesn't Recycle

I grew up recycling (and composting!) and I have cared about it for a long time. During the majority of my time in Chicago, (since 2003), I have lived in larger apartment buildings. None of these buildings provided recycling services, and I struggled to figure out what to do with my recycling.

Back in 2005, I bought blue bags, and per Chicago’s Blue Bag Recycling program, put my recyclables in blue bags in the trash dumpster. After Blue Bag Program ended, I resorted to sneaking over to the condo building next door and dumping my recyclables in their recycling dumpster. Why didn’t my building have recycling services? Why did some buildings have recycling services, while others were left out?

Recycling, the Chicago way

I began to ask around and research. I did lots of reading and talked to community organizations like the Chicago Recycling Coalition. Some of the most important information I gleaned was that since 1995, there had been a law on the books, The Burke-Hansen ordinance, which mandated that owners of high-density apartment buildings and condominiums (with 5 or more dwelling units) contract with a private recycling hauler to provide recycling services for the building. If building owners failed to provide recycling services, they were to be fined $25-$100 per day of violation of the ordinance. The problem was that the law had never been enforced.

One need I noticed was for a channel for residents to report that their building owner was not providing recycling services. What if I could create a pseudo 311 that was a public, online repository of residents reporting that their buildings did not recycle?

My Building Doesn’t Recycle!

With this idea in the back of my mind, I started attending Chi Hack Night. Several hack night attendees contributed to the development of the app by fielding ideas, providing design help, writing content, and programming. As the months went on the core team ended up being me, and Ben Wilhelm and Alex Kahn, who are both programmers.

After 8 months of work, we released the app at the beginning of February 2015. Called My Building Doesn’t Recycle, it allows Chicago residents to report that the management of their building (with 5 or more dwelling units) was not providing recycling services.

During the year following the release of the app, we gained a stream of media attention, including two spots on WBEZ, an article in the Tribune, and a report on NBC5 Investigates. The site had accumulated thousands of reports, and I gave several presentations about the app.

From apps to policy change

Fast forward to May 2016. I was wondering which direction to take with the app. Then early in the month, I received an email from Jennifer Martinez, Streets and Sanitation’s new public relations officer. She asked me to come in to meet with her and others at Streets and Sanitation about a revised recycling ordinance they were drafting and asked for my input.

On June 22 Mayor Emanuel introduced the revised ordinance in City Council. The Sun Times ran a story about the new ordinance, announcing that Mayor Emanuel wanted to start cracking down on recycling scofflaws.


Chicago City Council Ordinance SO2016-4792

The revised ordinance has stronger language, mandates single stream recycling, imposes higher fines on noncompliant building owners, and spells out how property owners must educate tenants and lease holders about the building’s recycling program. These changes make the ordinance more effective and bring it into the 21st century.

Now comes my ask of you

The ordinance is being discussed in the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection on Monday, July 18. The ordinance will be discussed further at the city council meeting on July 20.

Please call or write to your alderman and tell them to support the new recycling ordinance!

You can find out who your alderman is here. The following is a sample letter that you can write to your alderman. Remember to include your phone number and address in the letter.

Dear Alderman [your Alderman's last name],

It is time for Chicago to live up to its claims of being a green city and take steps to create a truly effective and comprehensive recycling program. For over 20 years, there has been a law on the books (The Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Ordinance) that requires owners, governing associations or condominium boards of buildings with 5 or more units to establish an effective recycling program for their properties. Unfortunately, the law was written with weak language, and was very rarely enforced.

On the website My Building Doesn’t Recycle (mybuildingdoesntrecycle.com) thousands of Chicago residents have reported that their building management is not providing recycling services. You can see the breakdowns by ward here: mybuildingdoesntrecycle.com/wards. The website’s popularity shows that Chicago residents of larger apartment buildings want to be able recycle and are tired of waiting for Chicago to catch up with other major cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

On June 22, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a revised ordinance that has stronger language, mandates single stream recycling, imposes higher fines on noncompliant building owners, and spells out how property owners must educate tenants and lease holders about the building’s recycling program. These changes make the ordinance more effective and bring it into the 21st century.

Properties subject to the Ordinance account for more than double the waste generated at all Chicago properties and so until these properties are required to recycle, Chicago’s recycling program will continue to be incomplete and ineffective. One simple step you could take would vote to pass the revised Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Ordinance (The Burke-Hansen Ordinance). The Ordinance mandates that properties are out of compliance with the law be subject to the following penalties: $500 to $1,000 for the first offense; $1,000 to 2,500 for second offense within 12 months; and $2,500 to $5,000 for the third violation and any ones after that within 12 months of the most recent violation. If curbing waste and protecting the environment are not reason enough for you to vote yes on the ordinance, the prospect for additional city revenue in these tough times certainly should be.

The city of Chicago has a long way to go to catch up with other major U.S. cities that offer complete and effective recycling programs. By choosing to pass the updated recycling ordinance, the city can take the first step towards building a recycling program that allows all residents to participate. Passing the ordinance sends the message that recycling is important to the environmental, economic and reputational well-being of the city and can only serve to make Chicago a truly world class city.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]
[Your Address]
[Your Phone Number]


About the author


Claire Micklin is an interaction designer in Web Services at the University of Chicago. She has been attending Chi Hack Night since 2014. She occasionally tweets at @clairemicklin. Her building does not recycle.