Waist-deep in waste contracts: What we’ve learned and how we can work toward a more sustainable approach to materials management

In Cook County, our relationship with waste is on an unsustainable course. We produce about seven pounds of it per person per day, compared to the national average of 4.4 pounds. Our high rate of waste generation has eclipsed our landfill capacity, as Cook County’s last remaining landfill reached capacity and closed at the end of 2015. And our recycling rate of 29% (excluding Chicago) trails the national average of 34%.

Inspired by these troubling trends and with funding provided by Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Delta Institute spent the last two years conducting research on the current state of waste management in Cook County and the implications of current practices. We then researched and modeled the potential environmental and economic benefits that would result from improvements in our waste management practices, and we created tools that empower municipal leaders to work toward achieving those benefits in their communities.

FUN FACT: We kicked off this research project by submitting FOIA requests to all 128 suburban Cook County municipalities for their waste management contracts. And while we cannot say that reading over 3,500 pages of municipal waste contracts was thrilling work, what we learned from that work (and the additional research and conversations that followed) was fascinating.

Here are just a few of the highlights of our two years of waste research:

  • Municipally managed waste and recycling contracts, services, and costs vary widely from one community to another,
  • Many of those communities have ample opportunities to maximize services and save money,
  • If we increase regional waste diversion to 60% by the year 2040, we can create 39,000 regional jobs and offset all waste-management related greenhouse gas emissions,
  • Consumer education is paramount to reducing contamination and improving recycling rates, and
  • Food waste is a largely untapped area of opportunity to improve diversion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create numerous co-benefits.

We compiled our learnings into a series of reports and tools that we hope can spur continued conversation and action toward more sustainable waste management practices in our region and beyond. We invite you to read more ROADMAP coverand to add your voice to the #transformwaste dialogue:

If we are to achieve system change in how we manage our waste material, we need the entire region to take up the sustainable materials mantel.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION! What are you doing to make Chicagoland more sustainable? How are you reducing, reusing, and recycling? What are your BIG ideas? Share your thoughts using #TransformWaste.



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