2016 Chicago Recycling Rules: UPDATED JANUARY 2016

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There are new (and tighter) 2016 Chicago Recycling guidelines debuting this week.  The city has announced that its planning to slap orange REJECT stickers on blue bins that violate the new regs – especially if they contain items in plastic bags – so read up on the new rules to ensure that your recycling makes it all the way to rebirth as a new product!

2016 Chicago Recycling Rules: The basics

There are a couple of different ways to check what you can, or can’t, recycle in Chicago, now.

If you like straightforward and searchable lists that are organized in order … click here.  If you prefer your internet shiny, picture-based, and mouse-over interactive, try this version.   There’s a quiz, to test your knowledge against the new city recycling rules.  How high can you score?

Here’s what you need to know:

DO NOT RECYCLE ANY PLASTIC BAGS 

There are non-municipal pick up points to recycle these at a bunch of area grocery stores but the city does NOT recycle them. That means Chicago won’t be able to recycle all the rest of your stuff if it is INSIDE a plastic bag.  Just dump all your recyclables loose in the blue bin, please.

YOU DON’T NEED TO SCRUB

The city takes any kind of plastic bottle – with the cap on – and it doesn’t have to be perfectly scrubbed.  Empty your plastic container, screw the cap back on, so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, and pitch it in the bin.

THE CITY RECYCLES A LOT

They take all glass and plastic bottles, all aluminum and steel cans, all cardboard cartons (milk, soup, broth, juice, etc).  The program also handles all magazines, office paper, envelopes, newspapers (again, no bag!), and even post-its.

BUT NOT QUITE EVERYTHING

If it is greasy or dirty with food residue (disposable coffee cups, paper napkins, pizza boxes, etc), it needs to be trashed.  Likewise, anything styrofoam gets tossed.  Try to avoid collecting things like that in your life!

What happens to Recycling in Chicago

In 2014, Curious City followed a blue cart, from its alley start point all the way along its route, to see just what does happen to recycling in Chicago.  

As it turns out, there are quite a number of ways that the items you mean to recycle might fall by the wayside.  For starters, if the recycling crew spots any trash in a bin, they’ll re-route the whole thing to garbage collection, and all the contents of that bin miss the recycling plant.   

At the sorting facility, still more non-recyclables are weeded out and diverted back to landfills.  Once all the chaff gets removed, the final pool of recyclable stuff gets sorted and then goes to companies interested in purchasing them as raw material and is shipped all over the world.  Check out the Curious City post for some fascinating details.

A little background on Recycling in Chicago

The current Chicago Blue Cart program got off to a rocky start.  You can read about some of the kinks in Chicago Reader’s 2010 article “Why Chicago Can’t Recycle” here.  At the time of that analysis, just 8% of residential waste was being recycled through municipal pickup (private service actually did much better at 19%).

The city’s original Blue Bag program was discontinued in 2008, but the city was slow to replace it with a more effective substitute.  Chicago squandered a lot of goodwill and public confidence by distributing the new blue carts to some neighborhoods but not others (about 1/3 of low density residents had carts in 2010).  The piecemeal execution meant that the city couldn’t include the program in their PR, couldn’t publicize the rules and couldn’t launch campaigns to encourage participation.  In fact, they only finished distributing blue carts to eligible homes in 2013.  

Buildings with more than six units still don’t get municipal recycling but have to contract with private recycling companies.   According to the 1993 Burke-Hansen Ordinance, a management company can be fined 100 dollars a day or lose a business license for failure to comply.  In reality, many management companies don’t bother and the regulation is hardly ever enforced – Chicago didn’t even inspect buildings to check on this until 2004 and then they chose not to levy any fines.   Check mybuildingdoesntrecycle.com to see resident-reported rental properties that still don’t recycle.  

Unfortunately, our historic recycling woes have led to a disenchanted population that doesn’t take recycling very seriously.  The challenge of re-educating and re-enthusing Chicago residents about recycling will be tricky.  Still it is totally worth the effort.  Everyone who already does care (that’s you, Reader) can work to spread the word to their friends and family.  Best of luck avoiding the garbage sticker!

  • I thought the Tetrapak containers weren’t recyclable until I saw the new list. I can feel less bad about drinking almond milk now.

    • Sean

      But the positive environmental impact you’re making by recycling the container doesn’t compare with the damage done by what’s inside … “More than 80% of the world’s almond crop is grown in California, which has been experiencing its worst drought on record. It takes 1.1 gallons (5 litres) of water to grow one almond, and thanks to the big profits they bring in, almond orchards continue to be planted.”

      http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2015/oct/21/almond-milk-quite-good-for-you-very-bad-for-the-planet

      • Thanks for the comment Sean. Please note that I said ‘less bad’. Not to be an almond apologist, but they are tied for fourth with pistachios for most water intensive crops and use about 8-11% of California’s agricultural water. I think almonds (see link from Slate below) get a bad wrap because they have exploded in the export market. Something like $4B, if memory serves.

        The greater issue is that water intensive crops are grown in the Central Valley at all. We can complain about each crop individually, but as long as there is relatively cheap water to go around, farmers will be planting the crop with the most value at market. Now that water is becoming more scarce we will see what that does to agriculture in California. (I hope it means growing more seasonally throughout the country).

        If you are interested in water issues, please check out our water hazard series here http://moss-design.com/water-hazard-out-on-the-fringe/ and here http://moss-design.com/water-hazard/

        Slate article:
        http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2015/04/almonds_in_california_they_use_up_a_lot_of_water_but_they_deserve_a_place.html

        • Sean

          Word! Amen, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I’m just all for easing the strain on California’s water supplies, as it’s been real serious for a while. You know what’s up, and keep fighting the good fight! And, while I don’t personally buy it, almond milk does taste real nice:)

  • Hats off for boiling down ‘how to recycle’ and ‘what happens to recycling’ so clearly. You slayed it. I believe the city provides recycling service to buildings with 4 units or less. Thanks for the links to recyclebycity.com .

  • FrancisMcGlitterbomb

    Even a Cheetos bag? Or a plastic potato chip bag? Not recyclable?