Emanuel Looks to Clean Up Chicago Recycling

By Susanna Weatherford

The City Council adopts the goal of making regular recycling service available by July 1, 1993, to 100 percent of the households in low-density dwellings served by the City of Chicago.

So begins the section of the Chicago Municipal Code regarding regular recycling service. To put that in perspective, Chicago Bulls fans were wearing out the word “threepeat” in July of 1993, the Unabomber was still on the loose and David Letterman was preparing his switch from NBC to CBS.

Chicago has fallen short of those goals, however. Roughly 40% of single-family homes are offered curbside recycling pickup, with the rest encouraged to use one of the drop-off centers throughout the city. These, however, are often so notoriously full that two aldermen last year proposed fining suburban residents caught trying to dump their recyclables in the bins. As these drop-off locations number 38, the paucity of recycling options may be more of a problem than rogue suburbanites.

The fact is, despite Chicago’s high profile as one of the nation’s “greenest cities,” recycling in the Windy City has been an exercise in embarrassment. Residents here have had blue bags, blue bins and blue carts, but all these have managed to do is leave the city red-faced.

“Chicago has been a tale of two cities,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, referring to the city’s recycling programs. “Half has had it and half has not.” Recognizing this service gap, one of Emanuel’s campaign oaths was to expand recycling services to other Chicago residents, an oft-attempted initiative of his predecessor. Despite Mayor Daley’s efforts, however, he found an expanded program to be simply too expensive.

At the moment, extension of recycling throughout the city remains on the horizon. In the meantime, as Mayor Emanuel announced in July, the city will engage in a free-market competition. “I promised the people of Chicago that my administration would work to deliver the best services in the most cost-effective way possible,” said Emanuel. “Delivering our blue cart recycling program at a lower cost to taxpayers is the first step in making recycling collection available citywide.”

Chicago’s current blue cart recycling program serves approximately 240,000 homes at a cost of $13.8 million per year. The private sector has pledged to perform the same duties at half that price—around $6.6 million. The Emanuel administration will review the program’s progress after six months and adhere to the more cost-effective option.

The plan pits the Department of Streets and Sanitation against private contractors in a “managed competition” to discover the least expensive option for curbside recycling. Portions of the city will be carved into six service areas. Two of these will be serviced by Streets and San while the other four will be served by private firms Waste Management and Midwest Metal Management. Waste Management, the world’s largest hauler of consumer waste, already serves the area and in fact used to manage the blue bag program. Midwest Metal, a division of Sims Metal Management, may be a less familiar name, though it too has a global presence. The two companies have 60 to 90 days to implement a recycling strategy from Emanuel’s July announcement, which means either September or October.

The mix of private and public workers will service the same areas that currently benefit from recycling services. After four months, an additional 20,000 households will be added, with more homes entering the program early next year.

The plan only addresses single-family homes. Densely populated apartment buildings and condos will have to make do with the erratic recycling efforts currently employed by their management companies. Chicago ordinance requires building owners to offer recycling to residents, but this law is frequently ignored and seldom enforced.

In addition to the public-private competition, the Emanuel administration also announced a proposed change to the way traditional garbage is collected. Each of the 50 wards currently collects its own trash. Every ward has its own garbage trucks, served by its own Streets and San office, staff and superintendant.

One glance at the Chicago ward map shows it to be the patchwork, gerrymandered mess that keeps aldermen in office. This is far from the most efficient way to serve the city’s residents. Adhering to the ward system for garbage pickup wastes gas and time, both of which rise in cost each year.

Picking garbage up grid by grid, Emanuel argues, could save up to $60 million a year. This plan would require fewer trucks, which is enough to make any environmentalist smile. However, it would also require fewer employees, which is sure to upset the city’s union workers.

Both of these initiatives would save money and resources. In his announcement, Emanuel pointed to the managed competition efforts of cities like Charlotte and Phoenix and the cost savings they were able to realize. San Francisco, however, is even more ambitious. The City by the Bay pledged to divert 75% of its waste by 2010 and all waste by 2020. While a zero waste city of that size seems incredible, the fact that San Francisco hit their goal last year shows that ambitious plans can be realized.

Photo: Erin English

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