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Patrick Clarke/MEDILL

Michael LeBeau unloads his recyclables at a drop-off center on the Far North Side at 6441 N. Ravenswood Ave. LeBeau's apartment manager does not provide recycling services.

Apartment dwellers locked out of blue cart recycling

by patrick clarke
Mar 13, 2013


Patrick Clarke/MEDILL

This recycling drop-off center on the Far North Side at 6441 N. Ravenswood Ave. is one of 37 in Chicago where residents can drop off their recyclables.


Patrick Clarke/MEDILL

Chart shows percentage of households that had blue carts before the announcement of an expansion last month, and the percentage that are expected to have them by this fall. For decades, Chicago has had difficulties with implementing a lasting residential recycling program.

Patrick Clarke/MEDILL

This apartment in Ward 46 struggles to keep recyclable materials together. Even though a specific container is for recyclables only, many residents say separating boxes and cans is too much of a hassle.

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Recycling drop-off center locationsFind out more about the blue cart recycling programCheck your ward

Chicago still trying to make blue cart recycling work after years of setbacks

“Chicago will no longer be a tale of two cities when it comes to recycling. Adopting new strategies will allow us to expand blue cart recycling to every community in 2013, and residents will soon have greater access to recycling services, which will make Chicago a greener, more environmentally friendly city.”

That was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s message last month as he announced an expansion of blue cart recycling services.

Problems persist, however, that lead some residents to forget about recycling.

“It’s still a tale of two cities when those of us at the mercy of landlords have no recycling,” said Karin Killian, who lives in an apartment building.

Chicago had a blue bag recycling program, which came to a halt in 2008 after years of failure. Under Mayor Daley’s administration, the newly introduced blue cart system was also unsuccessful, with a failed attempt at expanding it to more homes in 2011.
Michael LeBeau is taking a trip to a recycling drop-off center on the Far North Side at 6441 N. Ravenswood Ave. It’s a trip he takes once a week; a trip he has been taking for six years. From his car trunk, he unloads several cartons of cans, egg trays, cardboard boxes and paper bags into a large container. It’s a gloomy Monday evening on March 11. The rain is coming down.

As Mayor Emanuel seeks to make recycling easier for residents and expand the reach of the city’s recycling services, 340,000 households will receive blue carts, beginning in March and lasting until fall. These households cover a total of 19 wards, and include the North, West and South sides.

Currently, only 260,000 of the city’s 600,000 households receive blue cart recycling services.

Ward 49, where LeBeau lives, is among the early receivers of blue carts. The drop-off center where he now stands in the rain was where Mayor Emanuel stood on Feb. 20 during a press conference held to kick off the first phase of cart arrivals. LeBeau, however, will not be getting a blue cart anytime soon.

“The neighbors all throughout the alley, they all have the blue bins, but my specific building does not offer recycling at all, so we have to bring it down here once a week,” LeBeau said. “It’s a little bit of an inconvenience, but it would be nice if my building did offer that, for sure.”

The city’s residential recycling service is offered only to single-family homes and buildings with four units or fewer. That means residents in larger apartment complexes, like the one LeBeau lives in, will have to rely on their landlords to implement a recycling system with the building’s private waste hauler. All landlords are required by law to offer recycling services, but enforcement is rare.

“I know that my wife and I, we definitely feel that it’s worth coming down here,” LeBeau said. “We only live a couple blocks away, so it’s not the biggest hassle, but I can see why a lot of people might not do it if they were more than a couple minutes drive.”

Ward 49’s alderman, Joe Moore, said he encourages residents in his ward’s Rogers Park, West Ridge and Edgewater communities to advise their landlords of their obligations to provide recycling services. If that doesn’t work, the alderman said residents should contact his office. Moore said he is fully committed to making sure that all residents are able to participate in making Chicago a greener city.

Anne Sheahan, the City’s public relations director, said residents can and should also call 311 to lodge a complaint about any noncompliance by their apartment managers. The City will then issue a citation if the problem persists.

There are 37 locations across the city to which residents can take their recyclables. The Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility on Goose Island also accepts hazardous waste. Three of these drop-off centers are in Ward 41 where, Mary O’Connor serves as alderman, but some apartment dwellers say traveling to a drop-off center is simply a hassle they are not willing to tolerate. Ward 41 is the largest ward, comprising Norwood Park, Oriole Park, Edison Park, Wildwood, Edgebrook and O’Hare Airport.

“I don’t have a car and I certainly don’t have the time either to separate boxes and cans and then haul them to some place,” said Kerri-Ann Gordon, who has been living in Edgebrook for three years. “I don’t even know where these recycle places are, and I’ve never heard of them.”

Google Maps shows that the nearest drop-off center to Gordon’s residence is the Caldwell Woods Forest Preserve at 6358 W. Devon Ave. At 2.2 miles, it is a 6-minute drive, and a 45-minute walk. The other two drop off centers are much farther away: the Chevalier Woods Forest Preserve, 5530 N. East River Rd., and the 41st Ward Streets and Sanitation Yard, 6453 W. Higgins Ave.

“This issue is very important to Ald. O'Connor,” said Jason Hernandez, senior adviser to the alderman. “She has been focused on this issue since Day 1. The alderman also sponsors a number of recycling fairs throughout the year.”

O’Connor was at the Feb. 20 blue-cart-arrival press conference along with Ald. Joe Moore of the 49th Ward and Ald. Debra Silverstein of the 50th Ward. O’Connor will be hosting a recycling event on April 6 at the Immaculate Conception School, 7263 W. Talcott Ave. It is 4.1 miles away from Gordon. On the alderman’s website at, a list of the drop-off centers is found after clicking the Resident’s tab, then another tab - Streets and Sanitation, and finally after scrolling down to the bottom of the page.

Juanita Nieto is a property manager in Lakeview’s Ward 46. She said a large container in the garbage disposal room on the ground floor has a sign that clearly identifies it as the recycling container. An investigation of the room confirmed that there was a container with a “Recycling Material Only” sign above it on the wall, but the container was placed in a corner at the end of the room, so residents would have to walk about 10 feet to find it. Boxes, cans and other recyclable material were in all the containers and even on the floor. There didn’t seem to be any organization of the recyclables.

“I bring boxes and cans and stuff down there sometimes,” said Don Bell, who lives in the apartment. “I just throw them in the first bin I see when I open the door. They can figure it out.”

The blue cart expansion is expected to cost taxpayers $19.2 million annually. The City follows a single-stream recycling system – all materials are transported together. They are sent to manufacturers for reprocessing or reuse.