In his budget address last week, Mayor Daley proposed expanding the city’s Blue Cart recycling pilot program to 131,000 more households by the end of 2008. That would mean that about 211,000 households served by city sanitation crews, or 30 percent of the citywide total, would have source-separated recycling a year from now.

Most experts say that this kind of recycling, in which materials are sorted out of the trash before it’s collected, is far more effective and results in far higher participation than postcollection recycling, the approach taken in the city’s Blue Bag program. Wards that don’t have Blue Cart recycling are still supposed to be Blue Bagging their recyclables.

The Chicago Recycling Coalition and other advocates praise the Blue Cart program but wonder why it’s taking so long to expand it citywide. “We don’t need more pilots–we know what works. Now we need to roll it out everywhere,” said Julie Dick, a member of the coalition’s board of directors. “The more they roll it out on a citywide basis, the easier it is to educate people on how to recycle. Because right now that’s part of the problem–dealing with the confusion of how people can recycle in which part of the city.”

The city has said it doesn’t have the money right now to take Blue Cart recycling to all 50 wards. State grants covered some of the costs of introducing source-separated recycling into the seven wards that now have it, including the price of buying the blue recycling bins themselves.

Experts say that though launching first-rate recycling programs typically costs municipalities up front, as they have to invest in new equipment and some additional personnel, they should save in the long run as fewer people are needed to pick up garbage and landfill costs decline. 

But budget documents show that confusion and lower-than-necessary recycling rates might not be the only problems created by the city’s slow-rollout introduction of source-separated recycling. It may also be costing taxpayers too much.

Before 2007 the city didn’t have separate budget lines for recycling. Since Blue Bags were picked up with the rest of the trash, the cost of pulling them out at city sorting facilities was simply bundled in with the rest of the waste disposal budget. Critics charged that the Blue Bag program was a waste of taxpayer money, but the truth is that it was almost impossible to determine what the city was spending on recycling alone.

Now, though, the budget for the Department of Streets and Sanitation includes a section for recycling, and if the mayor gets his way, it’s going to grow rapidly. In 2007 the city spent about $2.8 million on 46 recycling jobs. Daley’s proposing a 2008 recycling budget of $7.9 million to cover 111 jobs–increases of 180 percent and 140 percent, respectively. That’s roughly proportional with the increase in households covered under the program. Among the new positions will be two assistant general superintendents and four assistant division superintendents.  

At the same time, however, the city is planning to spend about the same amount on waste collection personnel, going from $44.4 million on 692 jobs in 2007 to $45.4 million on 688 jobs in 2008.

The city is also budgeting $52.3 million to cover the costs of hauling and landfilling garbage, less than the $54.2 million it estimates it will spend in 2007. But this year, as it has the last several years, spending on waste disposal has exceeded the budgeted amount by several million dollars. The city allotted $49.9 million, but will wind up spending about $4.3 million more.

The point here isn’t that anything out of line is necessarily happening–not yet, at least. But the longer the Daley administration continues to spend money on the ineffective Blue Bag program while also attempting to invest in the Blue Cart approach, the less likely it is that taxpayers are getting cost-effective recycling or garbage disposal services. Savings, like higher recycling rates, can only going to be realized with a full-on commitment.

Then again, it’s possible Chicago will never see these anticipated financial benefits. Given the Daley administration’s record on hiring and contracting, effective recycling services might provide City Hall with the chance to go green and reward political supporters at the same time.

My call to Streets and Sanitation wasn’t returned this afternoon, but the department’s top brass is scheduled to testify in City Council budget hearings Thursday, Oct. 25.