After years of dismal recycling rates in Chicago, city officials now say they want to toughen Chicago’s recycling laws to ensure that residents of all apartment buildings and condos have recycling programs–and that they actually work.

The city just began offering curbside recycling to single-family homes and residential buildings with four or fewer units in the North Side’s 46th and 47th wards. This means 7 of the city’s 50 wards now have ditched the low-performing Blue Bag program in favor of the Blue Cart pilot. In the new program, residents in homes and “low-density” apartments and condos put all of their recyclable commodities–paper, glass, plastic, and metal–into a single blue cart (which they literally place at the curb in some areas, and in the alleys next to their trash bins in others). City crews pick up the materials every two weeks and take them to a high-tech sorting center in south suburban Chicago Ridge. The materials are separated and then shipped off to manufacturers for reuse.

So far, according to city officials, recycling rates are nearly two times higher among Blue Cart residences than they had been under the Blue Bag program. But the city is going to have to keep up an aggressive education and promotion effort, because rates are lagging behind the city’s goals in predominantly black and less affluent wards like the Fifth and Eighth. “Out of the box, our goal is 25 percent,” Chris Sauve, recycling coordinator for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, said in a meeting last night for 46th Ward residents. “But we shall see.” 

Of course, the single-family homes and smaller apartment and condo buildings served by Streets and San crews only account for about a fourth of Chicago’s garbage. More than half of the remaining 75 percent comes from residential buildings with five or more units, whose contracts with private waste haulers rarely include effective recycling programs.

Under city law, the owners and managers of these buildings are required to offer at least modest recycling services, but the ordinance has only been enforced haphazardly. Sauve said the city wants to amend the law to require that private waste haulers and property managers offer single-stream recycling–that is, a system in which you drop your paper, plastic, glass, and metal into a single bin that’s separated at a sorting center down the road. Right now, he said, the city is conducting what amounts to a pilot within a pilot in the 46th Ward by talking with waste companies, building managers, and residents to see what’s already working in high-density buildings and what isn’t.

“We need to understand from management companies and condo associations how to do this and what obstacles they might have,” Sauve said.

Recycling advocates have called for action in the high-density residential sector for years. Still, the law could be rewritten to say that nonrecyclers will face the death penalty–and it wouldn’t matter unless somebody’s going to enforce it.