Despite years of promises and programming, the Daley administration has yet to put together a comprehensive plan to consistently keep recyclable materials like paper, plastic, glass, and metal out of dumps. Trucking millions of tons of waste to landfills—including that good stuff—pushes up dangerous greenhouse gas emissions and costs Chicago residents millions of dollars a year in garbage collection fees, energy costs, and other long-term environmental expenses.

But recycling advocates say there’s a chance city officials will take at least a few more baby steps toward confronting the problem in the next few weeks—as long as they can figure out a politically acceptable way to get taxpayers, building managers, and waste haulers to do most of the work. 

The backdrop, of course, is complicated. The pressure to improve recycling programs keeps growing. Even within the not-so-defiant City Council, kvetching about inadequate recycling services has grown louder over the last several years, and Mayor Daley has announced plans to create the greenest Olympics in history—featuring water conservation, energy efficiency, and recycled products—if Chicago lands the 2016 games. Meanwhile, other cities have taken their own bold steps to cut waste—San Francisco now mandates not just recycling but composting under threat of thousands of dollars in fines.

At the same time, the lousy economy has cut some of the profits out of recycling. And Chicago is too broke for any new initiatives that don’t yield an immediate financial benefit—which is why, over the last few months, city officials have floated various proposals for revamping and taxing our garbage collection system. Last week, in announcing that the city’s deficit may rise to $300 million in the coming months, budget director Gene Saffold detailed what the cutbacks will look like if unionized workers don’t give up some pay and benefits. Among the hits would be a delay in the already slow rollout of the Blue Cart recycling program, which even on the current timetable isn’t supposed to be offered citywide until 2011.

That’s bad news, but as I’ve noted before, the worse news is that the Blue Cart program is only a small part of Chicago’s lackluster recycling policy. The 750,000 homes and small apartment buildings that will eventually get Blue Carts—those with four or fewer units—together produce less than a fifth of the city’s garbage. Twice as much comes from so-called “multi-unit” apartment and condo buildings, where the city has an even worse record of getting recycling going.

About two years ago, though, a funny thing happened: somebody got tired of waiting for the city to get its act together. You can read the details here, but the gist of it is that alderman Helen Shiller wanted to bring some recycling initiatives to the apartment and condo dwellers in the 46th Ward. At her instigation, the city asked the U.S. EPA to fund a study of what recycling programs were already going on there and what might work better. After a year of tracking the garbage generation and recycling at 20 different buildings—some recycled more than a quarter of their trash from the outset while others struggled to recycle a thing—the city’s Department of Environment and its consultants summarized their findings in a report completed a few weeks ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they concluded that there’s no one-size-fits-all model that will work for every multi-unit building—each has different trash haulers and property managers, varying amounts of space to store recyclables, and residents with a wide range of interest and motivation. The report argues that residents, managers, and waste haulers of each building have to work together to come up with a plan that works. And since each one will be different, nothing is as important as launching an education campaign that lets people know how and why to participate.

“Residents must be kept updated on the recycling program or can become discouraged that their recycling efforts are not making a difference,” the report says, making a point that critics brought up about the blue bag program during its darkest days. “The Project found that buildings should explain their waste and recycling practices, especially to new residents, in multiple ways. In addition to the tools already being used for existing residents (such as posters and container signage), new tenant lease inserts, flyers, or pledge cards help new tenants begin recycling immediately.”

Out of the study came a “tool kit,” since posted online, that offers the residents and managers of any building concrete steps on how to start a recycling program. And in March the city convened a “recycling task force” made up of aldermen, recycling advocates, waste haulers, and officials from the departments of Environment and Streets & San that’s been discussing how to turn the findings into citywide policy.

Tops on their agenda, according to several people who’ve attended the meetings, is a rewrite of what’s known as the Burke-Hansen ordinance, which supposedly requires recycling in Chicago’s multi-unit buildings though it’s almost never been enforced since becoming law in 1993. Critics of the Daley administration’s recycling policies have long charged that the city simply needs to take the ordinance seriously; the administration has argued that writing tickets to noncompliant building owners won’t help them start recycling programs.

Members of the task force are set to meet again next week to debate questions such as what kinds of materials should be required to be recycled, how performance would be monitored, whether there should be different standards for different sizes or types of buildings, and what kinds of incentives should be in place—as well as what kinds of penalties. They seem to agree that, as the study found, the ordinance will only be effective if it requires each building to develop its own plan rather than follow one imposed by the city.

Shiller says she wants to make sure the ordinance is focused on cutting the amount of garbage the city produces, perhaps through waste reduction and composting as well as recycling. “We should look at this as an issue of diversion from the landfills and not just an issue of recycling,” she says. She predicts the task force will produce a draft of the new legislation within a couple weeks.

Some on the task force are skeptical that anything better than Burke-Hansen will emerge. They argue again that the fundamental issue isn’t the quality of the ordinance on the books—it’s that the city hasn’t made a priority of recycling.

Shiller says things have changed in just the last couple of years. At the very least, she argues, the crummy economy has demonstrated the need for new economic development, and if Chicago can start recycling more consistently, businesses that use the materials will soon follow.

“The buzz helps create the intention to recycle, and the intention helps build the interest from entrepreneurs,” Shiller says. “By wanting to do it, and getting enough people to do it across the city, you make it doable.”