Some Blue Cart Residential Recycling Program participants will receive an "oops tag" on their cart if the contents include non-recyclables. Credit: Department of Streets and Sanitation

Here’s the deal: Do not put plastic bags, food, wood, clothing, cords, hoses, propane tanks, or construction waste into your recycling cart. And this warning goes out to my neighbors: Don’t put cat litter in there either!

In an attempt to address confusion about what can and can’t be recycled, Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation is testing a new, more streamlined public information campaign in hopes of boosting the city’s dismal recycling rate; less than 10 percent of Chicago’s waste is currently diverted from landfills. In a pilot program rolled out along several routes on the south and southwest sides, which have some of the lowest recycling rates in the city, Blue Cart Residential Recycling Program participants are receiving mailers with instructions on proper recycling and “oops tags” on their carts if items that can’t be recycled are discovered by haulers. The contents of the contaminated cart will be picked up by garbage collectors and sent to the landfill instead of one of the area’s three recycling facilities. 

Last year, some of the 600,000 residents participating in the Blue Cart program (single-family homes and buildings with four or fewer units) began to see stickers on their carts notifying them of the presence of non-recyclable contaminants. The most common offenders were plastic bags, which cannot be recycled because they tangle and break sorting plant machinery and can injure recycling facility workers who spend 10.5-hour shifts hand-sorting refuse on fast-moving conveyor belts. But the messaging on the stickers has been confusing and their use inconsistent.

A third of the city’s blue carts are hauled off by municipal workers. The other two-thirds of the routes are split between the private haulers Waste Management and Sims Recycling Solutions. While the city workers used orange stickers, Waste Management sometimes opted for white and green stickers, which claimed, “One contaminated cart can ruin an entire truckload of recyclables, which may wind up in the landfill instead of being recycled.”

After seeing DNAInfo’s story on the new stickers rolled out to enforce the city’s change in January 2016 from bagged to bagless recycling, and the detailed list of the stuff that, it turns out, can’t be recycled (paper coffee cups? pizza boxes?) my mind flooded with questions and hypotheticals: What if the plastic bag is so low down in the cart that the haulers don’t     notice and dump it in the recycling truck? Would that truck wind up at the landfill? How is it be possible to check every truck to make sure they’re all free of the presence of even a single Styrofoam cup?

Despite my neighbors’ persistent disposal of plastic bags, Styrofoam, and, yes, cat litter into the building’s blue carts, the recycling has continued to be collected and we’ve never received a violation sticker. That means our contaminated recyclables have been sorted at the facility, despite the inconvenience, cost, and potential danger to the workers—right? And what if the sticker appears? Does that mean we’d have to sort through the blue cart and get rid of the contaminants ourselves before the contents are recycled? It was never clear what Streets and San meant when it said the entire cart would be landfill-bound garbage if contaminants were discovered. 

It turns out that when you get a dreaded sticker or tag, your blue cart will be picked up by the garbage collectors—not the recycling haulers—on the next collection day. So removing contaminants in a blue cart that’s been stickered won’t reverse the fate of those recyclables. Once the haulers remove the tag from the blue cart, you can try to do better with the next load. The same is true on the routes on which the “oops tag” pilot program is active—the city’s just trying to convey a clearer message with a friendlier tone, relying on a picture of a little girl face-palming and illustrations of non-recyclables beside check boxes so drivers can let residents know what they did wrong. There’s even a thank-you message on the back of the tag.

“We’re not punitive right now, in fact we’re trying to be encouraging,” says Sara McGann, director of public affairs for Streets and San. “We want to reinforce the basics and what people need to do to recycle properly.”

If you don’t get a sticker or an oops tag, you can assume your blue cart     contents are getting to the recycling sorting plant, even if there’s a contaminant in there. Waste Management’s claims about entire truckloads of recyclables ending up in the landfill turned out to be more of a scare tactic. “I can’t verify if any [truckload] was ever diverted for contamination,” says Lisa Disbrow, a spokesperson for the company. “This is all about trying to educate the residents and get them to stop and think before they put it in their cart.”

To that end, here’s a handy guide for what can and can’t be recycled in Chicago. And an explainer on how clean your containers need to be.

Credit: Recycle By City

But ultimately, the extensive lists of contaminants and the city’s bungled education campaign may have resulted in a general recycling aversion. Since the Blue Cart program was fully implemented in 2014, every one of the city’s six Streets and San collection zones has seen a drop in the percentage of recycled waste. (This number is calculated by the percentage of each zone’s overall waste tonnage that’s taken to a recycling plant rather than a landfill. Streets and San doesn’t track recycling participation on a residence-by-residence basis.) The zone on the northeast side, which recycles more of its waste than any other part of town, has dropped to 17.9 percent from 19.3 percent in 2014; the zone on the midsouth side, which recycles the least, has declined to 4.6 percent from 5.7 percent in 2014.

This contributes to the city’s declining recycling rate as a whole, which has fallen to just below 10 percent from 11 percent in 2014. By comparison, New York City diverts about 30 percent of its waste away from the landfill through recycling and compost; Los Angeles and San Francisco each boast an 80 percent diversion rate. Seattle is at 60 percent. The nationwide average municipal recycling rate is about 35 percent.

Are Chicagoans simply less willing to at recycle as compared to other Americans? The disparity in rates can more likely be traced to the fact that the city’s comprehensive recycling program is relatively young. Though Chicago’s first recycling ordinance was passed in 1993, it suffered from uneven implementation for more than two decades. The city has had uniform recycling coverage for smaller buildings only since 2014. And lest you think blue cart participants are solely to blame for Chicago’s poor recycling track record, consider that twice as much waste comes from large residential and commercial buildings than from Blue Cart homes. Instead, owners and managers of larger buildings are required by city ordinance to provide recycling services to their tenants and contract with private haulers for pickup. This breaks up the city into an intricate network of private waste management fiefdoms, each with their own approach to educating residents and enforcing recycling rules. The cartel of companies who haul trash and recyclables away has mounted powerful resistance to attempts to consolidate and simplify the city’s waste collection in the past.

The failure of landlords of large buildings to provide adequate recycling services to commercial and residential tenants is supposed to be penalized, but in the past the rules have rarely been enforced, and the fine of no more than $100 was hardly threatening. Officials have only gotten serious about enforcing larger building recycling requirements this year, with a strengthened recycling ordinance. As of January, the penalties have increased to up to $1,000 for a first offense, such as failure to provide recycling for tenants or the presence of contaminants in building recycling carts.

The city is encouraging building tenants to report landlords’ non-compliance by calling 311. Says McGann of Streets and San: “Our goal is to work with the property owner so they learn how to comply with the ordinance, get the private hauler there, educate their residents about the recycling.”