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The Mechanics
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Op-Ed Tue Feb 19 2013

Parking's a Mess: 45 Tons of Non-Recyclable Stickers

Chicago parking meter receipts

By Scott Robbin & Andrew Huff

The 2008 decision to privatize Chicago's parking meters has always been unpopular. Forget for a moment that they are now the nation's most expensive parking meters, or that Chicago Parking Meters LLC is trying to fleece the city for $22 million dollars. Instead, let's think about the environmental impact of the meters, managed by LAZ Parking. By our estimation, Chicago's parking meters generate nearly 45 tons of unrecyclable trash a year. We'll explain.

First, let's look at the parking receipts themselves -- stickers mounted on plastic-coated paper. The stickers are meant to accommodate the small number of motorcyclists who must affix the receipt to their headlamp. According to the EPA, most stickers cannot be recycled due to the "pressure sensitive adhesive" backing. (One exception being Post-It Notes, which have a lighter coating of adhesive that can be removed in the recycling process.) Similarly, coated paper may or may not be recyclable depending on the coating used. LAZ Parking would not discuss details, citing company policy against sharing "proprietary information."

Now, let's look at the math.

Assuming that the average parking meter purchase was $3:

  • $82.8 million in revenue ÷ $3 average purchase = 27.6 million receipts printed

  • 27.6M ÷ 19 receipts per ounce = 1,452,632 ounces

  • 1,452,632 ounces = 45 tons

Of course, this is just an estimate; LAZ Parking would not comment on the actual number of receipts generated. To calculate the true amount, we'd either need to know the number of receipts issued per year, or an accurate average purchase price. If the average purchase were $2.50, it would equal 33.1 million meter receipts and about 54.5 tons of waste.

Regardless of the margin of error, it is clear that the parking meters have a negative environmental impact, albeit one that could be easily addressed.

Department of Streets & Sanitation spokesperson Anne Sheahan says the department collects about 100 million tons of garbage a year, and 55,000 tons of recyclable material. So while 45 tons is a drop in the garbage bucket, it's still a significant source of trash.

Although Sheahan says the department "has not received reports from field staff indicating parking meter receipts as a problematic form of litter," it's not uncommon to find receipts in gutters, on sidewalks and elsewhere on city streets. Judson Picco of Horner Park says, "I expect to see, at minimum, one discarded sticker on the pavement every time I park in a meter zone."

Scattered debris or not, the meter receipts are adding to the amount of trash generated by our city. If Chicago Parking Meters LLC and LAZ won't reverse the unpopular decision to privatize the meters, they can certainly take steps to win back public support by becoming conscientious participants in keeping our city clean and green.

The first step in this direction would be to switch the printing of parking receipts from stickers to paper; or rather, switch them back. In early 2010, LAZ had experimented with printing lightweight thermofax paper, but favored changing over to adhesive-backed receipts to cater motorcycle and scooter riders. Other cities, such as Albany, New York, have resolved similar issues by offering discounted plastic tag holders.

Cities like Cedar Rapids and Milwaukee have implemented ticketless solutions, allowing residents to pay for numbered meter spots. The multi-space pay station, known as LUKE, caters to traditional payment systems, like coins and bills, while also looking towards the future, accepting smartphone payments.

The simplest solution, though, may be for LAZ to switch to recyclable paper and work with the City to ensure that recycling containers are located near parking pay stations.


Scott Robbin is a web developer living in Chicago. Andrew Huff is editor and publisher of Gapers Block.

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gal / February 19, 2013 11:23 AM

"The simplest solution, though, may be for LAZ to work with the City to ensure that recycling containers are located near parking pay stations."

wait, i thought the stickers are not recyclable? so how is that the simplest solution?

bopo / February 19, 2013 3:40 PM

Why is there no cite/link for the assertion that the stickers aren't recyclable?

Andrew Huff / February 19, 2013 5:06 PM

@Gal: Good catch, that should have read "The simplest solution, though, may be for LAZ to switch to recyclable paper and work with the City to ensure that recycling containers are located near parking pay stations."It's been updated.

@Bopo As mentioned in the story, we don't know for sure whether the stickers are non-recyclable, because LAZ refused to comment. I'm on a different computer today, but I'll add a link to the EPA info we consulted regarding recyclability of stickers and plastic-coated paper.

Incidentally, thermal-printed receipts would not be an ideal solution to the recyclability issue -- the paper often contains BPA, a chemical that may be harmful to humans, which can contaminate the recycled paper pulp. Some cities do recycle thermal receipts, though.

Marthastew / February 19, 2013 5:21 PM

I have an idea. Maybe the city can start recouping some of the parking meter money by charging LAZ parking a "litter cleanup fee." For every expired parking ticket found tossed on the ground, they get charged $2.00. Or, to take the sting out of parking, give the drivers a $2.00 rebate for every sticker they turn in--like aluminum can recycling! P.S.: Minneapolis has numbered poles installed, and you must input the number on the pole to generate a receipt. This also keeps drivers honest because the numbers have to match.

Peter werth / February 19, 2013 7:04 PM

your blog is total speculation and you have no facts to support your claim. very unprofessional.

Andrew Huff / February 19, 2013 10:48 PM

@Peter Werth: I'm not sure what's unprofessional about doing some back of the envelope math here. If LAZ Parking were willing to talk on the record, we would certainly have more facts, but there are plenty of actual facts up there, which you could verify for yourself if you don't take our word for them.

Mickey / February 20, 2013 8:49 AM

As a Chicago driver I've always wondered why a box so large can't accomodate anything but credit cards & limited cash options. You'd think $$ of any denomination would be acceptable.

Colin Smith / February 20, 2013 9:28 AM

These meters are finally a good use for the dollar coin that the mint has been producing but nobody is using. Pick up a $25 roll at you bank.

Tina / February 20, 2013 9:43 AM

Great op-ed. The stickers are a nuisance and I don't understand why we can't go to a numbered system. I have used them in other cities and they work just fine and eliminate needless waste and time.

Paul / February 20, 2013 10:19 AM

maybe its time Chicago Parking Meters LLC pay for the garbage they are generating that cant be recylcled.

Zero Margin / February 21, 2013 9:47 AM

Where's the op ed on how much it costs the City to deal with trash from McDonalds...or Startbucks. Or worthless newspapers and periodicals? Why aren't we getting butt hurt about those costs?

Arrin / February 21, 2013 8:39 PM

Don't throw away or recycle. Re-use! Since they are stickers, cut out numbers from one old ticket and place onto another. Parking for an hour at 3:30? Go thru your old ones and find a 4. Cut it out. Stick it on another. Voila. Ethical or legal? Nah. But odds are the LAZ employee won't see the miniscule three-dimensional change. Saved a sticker and three bucks!

Mike / March 8, 2013 10:14 PM

An easy solution is to do whatmiami beach fl ofers to its residents. They too have pricey credit-card taking parking kiosks.

They give residents the option to prepay a digital meter device that is displayed in the window while in use. The driver powers the device up when needed, enters the parking fee zone, and the lcd display indicates that it is charging, so cops know whether or not to ticket.

Yes Chicago's fees are the problem but so too is the inconvenience of having to walk to the kiosk and wait in the rain/snow while the kiosk validates the credit card,

At least there is a solution to take the physical annoyance out of the equation.

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