Recycling Success from the Start, A

Not unlike other large cities, Chicago's diverse population presents challenges when it comes to getting residents from different socioeconomic backgrounds to participate in recycling. While it traditionally has been difficult to get low-income residents, in particular, to recycle, one company in Chicago has managed to defy this trend by implementing a successful incentive-based program in the city's public housing sector.

The Resource Center, a nonprofit environmental services company that operates a variety of community-based recycling, composting and reuse programs in Chicago, runs the public housing recycling program under a contract with the Department of Environment (DOE) and the Chicago Public Housing Authority. The program, which serves all of Chicago's public housing units, began shortly after the city's residential blue bag program started in 1995.

Although the city's solid waste management and recycling plan required that recycling be extended to all city residents, DOE officials were aware of the inherent challenges of operating a successful recycling program for public housing residents. Indeed, with basic welfare issues often a daily struggle, recycling is a low priority for these families.

The Resource Center answered this challenge by offering these low-income residents an alternative to the blue bag program. Both Resource Center and DOE officials knew the standard blue bag program would not work for this sector of the population for two reasons: the out-of-pocket expense required to purchase the blue bags, and the fact that most public housing units are in high-rise buildings, which are not conducive to blue bag collection.

Instead, the Resource Center sends mobile buy-back units through public housing complexes, offering residents vouchers that can be redeemed for cash in exchange for their source-separated recyclables. The mobile buy-back units are staffed by individuals who are hired from public housing neighborhoods, further offering residents incentives to recycle through job development opportunities.

Public housing residents collect the same materials that are collected in blue bags under the city's residential curbside program — mixed wastepaper, newspapers and corrugated materials, as well as plastic, glass and metal containers. Per its contract with the DOE, all recyclable materials collected by the Resource Center as part of the public housing program are processed at Waste Management's sorting centers.

“The public housing recycling program evolved from the confidence that all people will recycle if given reasons relative to their experiences,” says Ken Dunn, president of the Resource Center. “We identified a couple of motivators that work well — job creation in the public housing units themselves and offering small change for recyclables.”

“Everyone in public housing is concerned about jobs,” Dunn adds. “If everybody recycles, more jobs are created under our program.”

Although the public housing recycling program has been operating for approximately five years, the roots of the program actually took hold in 1968, when Dunn had the idea of putting the disadvantaged to work cleaning up the environment.

“I ventured out one Saturday to a disadvantaged neighborhood and saw a liquor store with a bunch of guys hanging out in front drinking, and there was an empty lot littered with trash next door,” he explains. “I went to those guys and said I had an idea and wanted to test it: we'd collect the bottles and containers from the lot and I'd sell the materials to a local glass plant and split the profits with them.”

The idea worked well and eventually became the foundation for the Resource Center. Today, the buy-back program's underlying emphasis on helping communities help themselves permeates the organization's other operations.

“We distinguish ourselves as a community-based program rather than a for-profit program,” Dunn says. “Our program is recycling done with job creation and community revitalization as its objectives.”