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Waste and the Windy City

Chicago's Streets and Sanitation Department oversees several programs that keep the city clean.

This Year, Waste Expo celebrates its 40th anniversary by offering more than 540 exhibitors, 40 conference sessions and training workshops, plentiful networking opportunities, and the attractions of Chicago, the nation's third-largest city.

Set on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago is home to 2.9 million residents, who dispose of about 1 million tons of trash per year. Residents also recycle just more than 200,000 tons of materials per year. The city's Streets and Sanitation Department, “Streets and Sans” as it is known locally, also manages a large composting operation.

Streets and Sans trash trucks run 350 routes, operate five days per week and collect trash from about 700,000 households, including apartment buildings with up to four units. Property taxes cover the costs of collection and disposal. Apartment buildings with more than four units and all businesses contract with commercial haulers to pick up their trash.

The residential collection fleet is made up of about 400 Autocar semi-automatic side-loaders. In many Chicago neighborhoods, alleys wide enough to accommodate garbage trucks run behind houses. Residents place 95-gallon black plastic carts with wheels along the alleys on pickup days. When the collection truck arrives, a laborer wheels the cart to the side of the truck and pushes it up to a grappling device that lifts and dumps the trash.

Chicago began using semi-automatic collection technology earlier than most jurisdictions because of a rat infestation. During the 1980s, residents put out their trash in 50-gallon drums with no lids, making the containers a prime target for rodents. “That was the era of rats,” says Matt Smith, chief spokesperson for Streets and Sans. “We had between 6 and 7 million rats. During the 1980s, we switched to the 95-gallon super-carts, which are heavy-duty plastic with tight-fitting lids. The city has distributed about 1.5 million carts [for] free. Every year, we replace about 100,000, again free of charge.”

According to the latest estimate, Chicago's rat population has shrunk to fewer than 500,000. Smith attributes the decline in part to the sturdy containers and tight-fitting lids that have cut the rats off from their food supply.

In addition to collecting trash, Chicago's residential collection fleet plows snow during the winter and spreads asphalt during the summer. “The trucks have been retrofitted with quick-hitch ploughs,” Smith says. “We've had quite a few storms this winter, and we have used about 150 of our garbage trucks to plow. When winter is over, we install an insert into the truck beds and use them for asphalt.”

Chicago's waste trucks deliver trash to four materials recovery facilities (MRFs) located throughout the city. The city owns three of the sites, and the fourth is owned by Phoenix-based Allied Waste Industries. Allied operates all four of the MRFs, which each handle between 1,000 to 1,500 tons per day.

At the facilities, waste is dumped onto the floor, and sorters pull out blue bags, which contain recyclables. Allied loads the trash onto trucks and hauls it to various privately owned landfills in Illinois and Indiana. Sorters separate the materials in the blue bags and send the glass, plastic, metal and paper to appropriate recycling vendors.

The city also operates a household hazardous waste drop-off facility on Goose Island, which is located in the northern part of the city on the Chicago River.

Two Ways to Recycle

Collection trucks pick up about 205,000 tons of recycled glass, plastic, metal and paper per year from Chicago residents, Smith says. “We have two ways of recycling in Chicago,” he says. “For years, we have been using the blue-bag system, in which people bag recyclable materials including glass, plastic, metals and paper. Containers and paper are bagged separately.”

However, seven of Chicago's 50 wards use single-stream recycling. The city has given residents in those wards 95-gallon blue carts designed to the same specifications as the black carts used for refuse. Residents place all of their recyclables into the blue carts, and the MRFs do the sorting.

The single-stream program has been running for about two years, Smith says. It started with 200 homes in Beverly, a neighborhood on the south side of the city where residents have always been avid recyclers. When that proved successful, the program expanded to include the entire 19th ward. Soon after, six additional wards were brought into the program. “We've selected contiguous wards because that made it easier to manage the routing,” Smith says.

Chicago also collects and reuses yard waste. Residents bag the material and set it out beside the trash carts, and the city uses the yard waste to create compost for its landscaping operations.

“We even recycle our Christmas trees,” Smith says. “We set up temporary facilities throughout the city, and people drop off their trees. We mulch the trees on site and give residents bags of mulch in return for bringing their trees. We use the leftover mulch for city landscaping projects. Mayor Daley has a green thumb, and there is always some kind of landscaping going on.”

The hazardous household waste drop-off center on Goose Island offers electronic waste recycling services. “We work with a local business that refurbishes some of the equipment — such as computers — for use in city schools,” Smith says. In addition, Chicago's residential recycling program includes 16 drop-off centers located throughout the city.

Beyond the residential recycling program, private haulers pick up about 4.3 million tons of commercial recyclables per year, including construction and demolition (C&D) materials. “We have had a tremendous success with C&D recycling,” Smith says.

As a result of a building boom in Chicago, the city was left with a lot of debris in various sites, prompting complaints from residents. In January 2006, the city enacted a recycling ordinance with mandatory requirements.

Streets and Sans doesn't just clean the streets and pick up trash. Residents ask the department to trim trees, remove graffiti, pick up dead animals, tow away abandoned vehicles, and repair street lights and traffic signals. “We respond to about 1 million requests from residents for service every year,” Smith says.

Michael Fickes is a Cockeysville, Md.-based contributing writer.


Chicago has its own pizza, its own hot dog and its own Italian beef sandwich. Here's a quick primer.

In 1943, Ike Sewell and his friend, Ric Riccardo, who had arrived from Italy with the recipe for a new snack called pizza, began experimenting with the recipe, trying to make the snack into a full meal. They came up with Chicago-style deep-dish pizza and opened Pizzeria Uno, a Chicago landmark.

If deep-dish pizza isn't your thing, try a Chicago-style hotdog. But don't put ketchup on it, or everyone will laugh at you, residents say. Chicago beef dogs need bright green relish, mustard, chopped or grilled onions, sliced tomatoes, a pickle and a shake of celery salt.

If you're too sophisticated for a Chicago dog, there is the more upscale Italian beef sandwich: wafer thin sliced beef on a soft roll dipped in a gravy with green peppers stewing in it.