2019 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom finalist

Recycling in Chicago

About the Project

For more than two decades, Chicago’s recycling program was notoriously inefficient, corrupt and convoluted, resulting in a disengaged citizenry and a program that experts routinely deemed among the worst in the nation.

In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised change by saying city haulers would compete against private garbage companies, with his administration determining a winner to take the reins of the city’s recycling program into the future.

Nearly eight years later, Madison Hopkins, a reporter for the Chicago nonprofit news organization the Better Government Association, decided to check how well Emanuel’s plans worked. It was the beginning of a nearly year-long odyssey that resulted in a multi-part series that examined every aspect of the city’s recycling program.

What Hopkins found was that Chicago’s recycling rate for single-family homes and smaller apartment buildings actually got worse under Emanuel. The rate dropped to 9 percent — the lowest for any major American city — and in numerous instances a politically connected private firm was paid twice for taking materials set aside to be recycled and dumping them into its own landfills.

The city’s larger apartments, businesses and skyscrapers didn’t fare any better, Hopkins’ reporting found. Over more than two years, the city inspected less than 1% of the 77,000 big buildings to determine whether owners were obeying Chicago’s much-touted reforms. What’s more, the city issued only three tickets during that time.

Coming to those conclusions wasn’t easy. Emanuel’s administration kept almost no comprehensive data. Instead, Hopkins had to stitch it all together by obtaining several different data sources that were often dense and took weeks to decode.

One of Hopkins’ biggest finds was a massive database kept as part of the city’s “managed competition” program that pitted the private crews against the city crews handling recycling for homes and small apartments. The records contained every time a crew deemed a recycling bin had been “contaminated,” which meant the crew claimed the full contents of the bin couldn’t be recycled and instead had to be tossed in a landfill because it contained non-recyclable garbage.

After mapping that data out, Hopkins found two areas of the city had extraordinarily high rates of contamination and both were being serviced by the same private firm, Waste Management, the only private garbage hauler working in Chicago that also owns landfills. It is also the only company that stands to financially benefit when a crew deems a bin “contaminated.”

Even though Waste Management oversaw recycling in about half the city, 90 percent of all bins tagged contaminated came from its areas, a statistical unlikelihood if all recycling crews were operating by the same rules. In parts of the city that bordered different recycling pickup zones, whether recycling was handled correctly or not depended more on what side of the street a resident lived on.