The Daley administration’s Blue Bag recycling program was officially declared dead Friday morning. It was 17.
City officials offered no lamentations for the program in announcing its demise at a press conference in Uptown. By the end of the summer, they said with pride, blue bags and other recyclable materials will no longer be sorted out of trash collected by city sanitation crews.
Instead, the city will resume its slow expansion of blue cart recycling, in which residents toss their recyclables into a container for separate pickup. An additional 92,000 households will have blue cart recycling by the end of the summer (see map), and all residential buildings with city garbage pickup–those with four or fewer units–will have blue cart recycling by 2011. Areas that already have blue carts have recycled at about triple the rate they did with blue bags.
The city will also begin adding more sites where residents without the service can drop off materials for recycling.
“This is a day to celebrate,” said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Environment. “We have accomplished much, but we also understand we have a lot of work to do. Our programs and initiatives have earned praise from many in the environmental arena, but the one consistent area of concern has always been recycling.”
Streets and Sanitation commissioner Michael Picardi said the blue cart rollout can’t go any faster because the city doesn’t have the money for all the new carts, trucks, and employees needed. And it doesn’t have the means to handle the logistics that quickly. “It took us five years to roll out the black cart [garbage pickup] program,” he said. “It takes ten months to order a truck. We pick up from 600,000 city residential households. It would be impossible to roll this out to all of them in a year.”
But the city isn’t going to wait until 2011 to kill off what’s left of the Blue Bag program. It wants the money it’s currently spending on it to put toward the Blue Cart program. And environment officials want to be able to focus their recycling education efforts on the newer approach.
First introduced by Mayor Daley in 1990 as “extremely convenient, environmentally sound, and the least expensive method to administer,” the Blue Bag program instead cost Chicago taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars while keeping just a fraction of the city’s recyclable waste out of landfills. It has been widely blamed for dimming Chicagoans’ confidence in recycling generally, even though environmentalists say recycling is one of the simplest ways the average household can help fight climate change and protect natural resources.
Even at the event that amounted to the Blue Bag program’s wake, city officials were defending the decision to stick with it so long. “That was the state of the art at the time,” Picardi said. “This is state of the art now.”
But recycling experts never thought it was a sound approach. “If by ‘state of the art’ you mean new and unproven and unused by just about anyone else in the country, then yes, it was,” said one environmentalist at the event Friday.
Among the Blue Bag program’s fiercest critics were the leaders of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, some of whom were on hand to announce their support for the conversion to blue carts. “The CRC has fought for this change for 16 years,” said Julie Dick, vice president of the group’s board. “Today marks the end of a long, hard battle. There are so many other waste management issues to be addressed in this city, and we are really excited that we finally get to move on to those issues. The Blue Bag program has been a huge distraction.”
Dick called for other waste-reduction strategies and a citywide program to bring recycling to the thousands of residential buildings with private garbage haulers, which aren’t eligible for the Blue Cart program. “We’re looking forward to the day when every building in Chicago has an effective, source-separated recycling program.”
The Blue Bag program is survived by its parents, Mayor Daley and garbage giant Waste Management; its stepmother, current program manager Allied Waste (PDF); and dozens of longtime aldermen who publicly supported the program for years. One longtime defender, former Streets and San commissioner Al Sanchez, was bagged himself in 2005.