The Chicago-based Better Government Association (BGA) has published an online report accusing Houston-based Waste Management Inc. (WM) of using contamination in residential collection bins in Chicago as a reason to divert tons of recyclables to landfills, including one operated by WM.
The alleged practice, says the BGA, is diverting “tons of residential plastics and paper into landfills the company owns, costing taxpayers twice and aggravating Chicago’s worst-in-the-nation recycling rate.” That rate stands at less than 9 percent, according to the BGA.
The online report says residents living in parts of Chicago served by WM “are far more likely than other Chicagoans to see their discarded recycling dispatched to garbage dumps.” The BGA also indicates WM “is the only recycling hauler that operates a for-profit landfill” where some of Chicago’s municipal solid waste (MSW) is landfilled.
The BGA reached out to WM, whose spokesperson Lisa Disbrow states, “The overall premise of your story that we are purposely trying to divert materials to landfills is not true.” Rather, adds Disbrow, “Recycling contamination is an undeniable trend across the country. It is no different here in Chicago.”
Disbrow also said the city of Chicago decides where to landfill contaminated bins, not WM. “We have no knowledge or control where the city trash trucks deliver the waste material from the tagged carts,” she remarks.
The BGA says its findings indicate that since 2014, hauling crews operating in Chicago have labeled nearly 578,000 recycling bins collected in the city as “grossly contaminated.” Of that total, “514,239 — almost 90 percent — were tagged by workers for Waste Management, even though the company’s green trucks cover only half the city,” says the BGA.
Chicago currently has six residential recycling collection zones. WM collects in three of those zones; in two zones collection is performed by city of Chicago workers; and in the sixth zone collection is performed by West Chicago, Illinois-based Lakeshore Recycling Systems, serving as a subcontractor to Sims Metal Management.
The BGA says that under city rules, just one plastic bag or food item spotted in a recycling bin by crews “could mean the whole bin is labeled ‘grossly contaminated,’ and its contents taken to a landfill.”
The BGA found Chicago residents who objected to their recyclables being diverted by WM, including one in a north Chicago neighborhood who said his blue bin has been tagged as being contaminated seven times since late 2015 despite his knowledge of and attention to what belongs in the bin. Another resident expressed similar frustration with her bin being tagged, saying “The city of Chicago is being ripped off with how they’re handling recycling.”
In addition to faulting WM for its enthusiasm to tag bins as contaminated, the BGA accuses the city of Chicago of failing to monitor or enforce reporting requirements that could have discovered the contamination rate discrepancy before the BGA did.
The BGA calculates that the contents of contaminated bins tagged by Waste Management and sent to landfills may mean “about 5,000 tons of recyclables have been diverted” away from recycling centers.