It might strike you as an obscure policy dispute if not an absurd one, but an ongoing debate over who’s going to get control of your dumpster is likely to determine what happens in the coming years with millions of tons of Chicago’s waste and millions of dollars of its residents’ money.

A few weeks ago city officials proposed drastic changes to the way garbage is picked up, disposed of, and paid for in Chicago, but some of the area’s leading waste haulers, recyclers, and business groups are voicing ever-louder skepticism about city projections that the plan would be better for the environment and cheaper for residents and businesses.

“They’ve gone around for several months talking to various groups, and there’s not anyone we know who actually supports this plan,” says Cara Birch, a spokeswoman for a group of waste management firms concerned about the proposal. “If they’re truly interested in things like improving recycling and reducing emissions, they should talk to the people in the industry who are doing it.”

Suzanne Malec-McKenna, the commissioner for the Chicago Department of Environment, emphasizes that the plan is meant to spur serious discussion and is by no means final. “It’s a model that’s been floated as a possibility,” she says. “I think it’ll end up being a hybrid of a range of models that have worked before it’s done.”

Currently Chicago’s trash is collected by a patchwork of waste haulers that leaves many city residents confused (if they’re not annoyed) about what’s destined for a landfill and what, if anything, they can recycle. City sanitation crews collect the garbage (and, in places that have the Blue Cart program, the recyclables) from the 750,000 residential buildings with four or fewer units. The owners and managers of every other kind of building—apartments, condos, businesses, and other commercial properties that together account for more than 80 percent of the 7 million tons of waste produced here each year—hire private haulers. The costs are passed on to residents and customers in the form of higher rent, condo fees, or prices at the cash register.

The new proposal, outlined in a draft document [PDF] officials have been circulating, would scrap the private hauling system for a new one that grants far more power to the city. Rather than each apartment building or commercial property negotiating its own deal with a waste hauler, the city government would divide Chicago into as many as 20 zones and hand out an “exclusive franchise,” presumably through a fair and competitive bidding process, to a single hauler in each. The companies operating in each zone would be responsible for picking up and landfilling the trash as well as sorting out and recycling certain reusable materials.

The city predicts that recycling rates would climb—and frankly, it would be almost impossible for them to go in any direction but up, since only 3 to 5 percent of waste is now recycled in multifamily residences and businesses outside the Loop. Critics say that’s because the city has never enforced the long-dormant multifamily building recycling law already on the books. Malec-McKenna says there’s little point in enforcement until waste haulers offer building owners affordable, user-friendly recycling options. “They just haven’t done it yet,” she says.

Because of current efficiencies in collection and disposal routes, the city says, its plan would slash greenhouse gas emissions from garbage collection by nearly a quarter. With a need for fewer trucks, taxpayers would spend less on road and alley repairs, and the bidding process would yield lower garbage disposal fees. “Right now there is an unbelievable disparity in the prices and services for customers—for the exact same service right down the street,” says Malec-McKenna. “It’s just price gouging.”

Not surprisingly, the National Solid Wastes Management Association says that’s simply not true. The waste haulers argue that Chicago’s thousands of businesses and buildings have unique needs, depending on their location and the type of trash they produce, and simply can’t be served by a single hauler (or charged a uniform fee) over a broad area. The trade group is so worried about the new proposal that it’s set up a Web site to counter many of the city’s claims. Among other things, it maintains that other cities with similar systems actually pay far more for garbage collection and recycling.  

Of course, the waste haulers have some motivation for getting in on this discussion, since some of them could lose out if, as the city says, the franchise system actually results in lower collection fees. But at least a few could also reap a nice profit by winning lucrative contracts under the new system as they have under the old [PDF].

Malec-McKenna says the city isn’t wed to any particular idea except changing the current system. “What we’ve got now isn’t working.”

All sides should look closely at the results of the multiunit recycling pilot project in the 46th Ward, funded by the city and the U.S. EPA, when it’s finished in about two months. Over the last year it’s helped landlords and residents start affordable recycling programs at dozens of buildings of different sizes and income levels—without a complete revamping of the system. But it’s also been work-intensive, from what I’ve heard.

Meanwhile, other municipal watchdogs have zoomed in on inefficiencies in another segment of Chicago’s waste management system—the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department, which this year is expected to spend about $153 million on garbage collection and disposal.

For more trash talk, check out the discussion Tuesday morning on Chicago Public Radio’s Eight Forty-Eight program.