Since 1995, Chicago had a law on the books that mandated that high-density buildings (buildings with 5 or more residential units) provide recycling services to tenants. Per the recycling ordinance, landlords of these buildings were required to contract with a private recycling hauler and pay for recycling service in addition to trash service. Over the years the city rarely enforced the ordinance, and as a result many landlords chose to avoid the extra expense by not providing recycling services to their tenants. I had lived in Chicago for 13 years, the majority of which I had lived in apartment buildings without recycling. I was frustrated that a city as large as Chicago had an incomplete and ineffective recycling program for larger buildings. I was determined to find a way to push the city to pay more attention to multiunit recycling.
I began to research Chicago's multiunit recycling problem. A standout in the reading I did was Mick Dumke's "Why Can't Chicago Recycle?" , which became a source I referenced again and again. I also interviewed him and got more background on the facts in his article. I contacted other people mentioned in the article, like Mike Nowak, who at the time was the President of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. Mike and the Recycling Coalition are contacts I maintained and collaborated with throughout the project. In addition, I talked to people who had contacts in my ward. They said that the city preferred not to enforce the recycling law, that the law had no teeth, and the best thing I could do was to try to start my own recycling program in my building. I wanted to address the multiunit recycling problem for all buildings - not just my building, so I pressed on to create an intervention that would do that.
From my research, I came to the conclusion that the primary problem was that the city was not enforcing the recycling law. Though there was no guarantee of success, I aimed to push the city to enforce the law. I thought about what happens when a law is enforced. Residents can report violations of that law to the city through the 311 system. I decided to create a public forum of sorts where residents could report that their building was not offering recycling. This would show the city (and the public) that a number of buildings did not have recycling and refute the city's claim that most buildings were following the law.
I came to Open Government Hack Night (now called Chi Hack Night), with this idea. One of the event organizers put me in touch with the Environmental Breakout Group, whose leader helped me think about how to translate my idea to an app. I decided to create an app that allows residents to submit (anonymous) reports that their buildings were not recycling. The app would have a map of these resident reports.
I gathered a group of dedicated programmers and others to work on the project. I communicated my ideas primarily through low-to-mid fidelity prototypes.
Launch and Beyond
My Building Doesn't Recycle was launched in February 2015. The team got the word out by responding to posts on Everyblock.com about buildings that were not providing recycling services. The app soon got hundreds of reports. In the next couple months, I appeared on two WBEZ shows: Tech Shift and Curious City.
The City Responds
About a week after the Curious City piece was published, the Chicago Tribune published an article about My Building Doesn't Recycle and the high-density building recycling problem. A couple days later, Streets and Sanitation wrote to me and asked for a spreadsheet of all of the reports on the site. I asked for a meeting meeting with them to present the data and to get a better idea of how they were going to use it. They were not ready for a meeting and wanted me to just email the spreadsheet. I declined that request in hopes that they would agree to a meeting in the future.
The Tide Turns
In December 2015, NBC5 ran a story on My Building Doesn't Recycle and the multiunit recycling problem. For the first time, the city provided a response to this report. They said that they were working on rewriting the ordinance to make it stronger and easier to enforce.
In May 2016, Streets and Sanitation contacted me and asked me to meet with them to review a revised version of the recycling ordinance. They also asked me to provide them with the reports from the site. Things moved quickly from there. Mayor Emanuel sponsored the new ordinance, which was introduced in June and passed City Council in July.
The revised recycling ordinance went into effect in January 2017. The ordinance has higher fines for noncompliance and mandates single-stream recycling. In addition, the city created a new 311 code called Recycling Inspection that people can use to report that their building is not recycling and request that an inspector visit the building. One recycling company reported that they had received 400 new requests from building management for recycling services after the city passed the law. A FOIA request from the Chicago Recycling Coalition revealed that the city had received 200 reports of buildings that were not recycling (requests for a recycling inspection) since the law went into effect.
I presented to Chi Hack Night on my process for creating an app that helped changed policy. Hack Nighters and the members of the civic tech Twittersphere responded positively.