If Donald Trump won’t tackle climate change, then Chicago will” was the headline of an August op-ed piece in the Guardian by Mayor Emanuel, who loves to tout Chicago as a green city, all the more so since the Trump administration thumbed its nose at the Paris climate agreement. Earlier this month Chicago played host to a conference (rather grandly titled the North American Climate Summit) that drew 51 mayors who signed on to a charter calling for cities to meet or exceed the targets set by the Paris accord. Chicago already has a Climate Action Plan of its own.
So you can bet Rahm never mentions the city’s recycling program if he can help it. Less than 10 percent of Chicago’s waste is diverted from landfills, while the nationwide average is 35 percent, and high flyers like Los Angeles and San Francisco claim 80 percent, Seattle 60 percent. And it’s not like the city’s shortfalls in this regard are a dirty little secret among Chicagoans.
The problem goes way back—Mayor Harold Washington first proposed curbside recycling for the city’s residences in 1987, the year of his death. The city was without a recycling program at all till 1993, when Mayor Richard M. Daley first implemented the infamous Blue Bag Recycling Program. The blue bags were available for purchase at grocery stores; those who were interested in recycling could fill and throw them into the trash along with regular refuse, and the bags, readily detected by their color, would be sorted out.
Or not. Participation in the program was limited to begin with, as you might expect with a plan based on the purchase of special bags, but even the efforts of the well-intended were sabotaged when haulers dropped off their loads at “transfer stations,” essentially big garbage dumps, rather than taking them to sorting centers where the blue bags could more readily be rooted out. Once people learned that they’d been buying the damn bags (small, not cheap, and easily torn) and dutifully putting out their recycling only to have most of it wind up in a landfill, they felt suckered, and rightfully so.
The Blue Bag Recycling Program was finally scrapped in 2008, which marked the start of curbside recycling in Chicago. Or rather, selected wards in Chicago. Citing costs, the city introduced its Blue Cart Residential Recycling Program gradually, leaving most neighborhoods without any program. Budget constraints continued to hamper the rollout. In 2010—the year the city released its Climate Action Plan—irate city workers tipped reporters to the existence of hundred of blue carts sitting unused in a south-side warehouse, orphaned by lack of funds for trucks and employees.
Despite all the problems, by 2013 the carts were placed citywide, serving 600,000 residences and multiunit buildings with four units or less. So there’s that accomplishment, anyway.
Nevertheless, the numbers, as cited above, puncture any sense of civic pride. The city’s recycling rate as a whole hit a high of 11 percent in 2014 but in 2016 dropped back below 10 percent, where, incredibly, it remains, just a 1 percent improvement over the bad old days of blue bags. v