Paul Fine used to separate the paper, plastic, glass, and metal from his garbage and take it to his parents’ house in north suburban Vernon Hills. It was a chore, but he didn’t feel he had much of a choice. There, at least, the stuff was likely to get recycled.

Like all residential dwellings in Chicago with more than four units, Fine’s 56-story condo building at 655 W. Irving Park paid a private waste hauler to take care of its trash. Under city law, all private haulers are required to offer recycling services to these buildings, known as multiunit or high-density residences. Initially the hauler told the residents they should put their recyclables into blue bags and dump them into the garbage chutes on each floor. The company claimed it would later extract the bags before sending the rest of the trash to landfills. This is the same method city sanitation crews were offering to the 700,000 small residential buildings whose waste they pick up. Haulers were allowed to use it even though officials knew it was ineffective, especially in large buildings.

When Fine and other residents asked their hauler how much of their garbage was being kept out of landfills, the company couldn’t tell them. They assumed it was all junked, so they pressured the waste company to place several recycling containers in a first-floor storage room and take the materials straight to a recycling facility. But that didn’t work: Only a few diehards bothered to separate their recyclables and take them in the elevator all the way down to the first floor, and the hauler simply didn’t live up to its agreement. “A couple of times we actually saw the waste hauler dumping the bins into the trash,” says Fine, now the condo association’s vice president.

His building’s struggles illustrate a widespread problem in Chicago and other urban areas. Recycling, experts say, is a gateway to environmentalism for people across the country. It’s the simplest, most effective way the average household can conserve raw materials, keep open land from being turned into dumps, cut pollution from trucking and manufacturing, and help combat global warming. In addition, when it’s done right, communities can save on long-term waste management costs. But it’s much more difficult to get people in multifamily dwellings to participate.

For starters, they’re served by a range of private haulers rather than a single public sanitation department, and many of those aren’t equipped to do more than dispose of trash. As a result, recycling program start-up costs are often more than building owners, managers, and tenants want to pay. In addition, high-density buildings don’t always have enough space for residents to separate or store recyclables, and because of economic and cultural diversity, communication and education efforts stall.

Still, while other cities have confronted these problems with a mix of tough laws and infrastructure investment, Chicago officials have dodged them for years. In 1993 the city passed the Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction Ordinance–commonly known as the Burke-Hansen ordinance, after the aldermen who sponsored it–which requires multiunit building managers and their private waste haulers to set up programs to recycle at least three kinds of material. It set a goal of recycling at least 12 percent of waste from high-density buildings by 1996. While only about a third of Chicago’s residents live in high-density buildings, according to city estimates they generate at least 50 percent more garbage than do their low-density neighbors. But enforcement of the law has been extremely rare. Instead city officials have put most of their energy–and tens of millions of dollars–into the ineffective Blue Bag program for low-density buildings.

Only in the last few months, after prodding and pressure from aldermen and federal officials, have members of the Daley administration talked openly about new efforts to boost high-density recycling. This has inspired praise from recycling advocates, but they still wonder why it’s taken so long, and they worry that comprehensive changes remain a long way off.

“It’s such a slow process,” says Julie Dick, a Chicago Recycling Coalition board member. “We need recycling services across the city sooner than six or eight years from now.”

The city introduced blue-bag recycling to low-density residences in 1995. Though it captured less than a third of the valuable paper, metal, glass, and plastic that can be recycled easily, few members of the City Council criticized it publicly. In 2005, though, the city finally responded to pressure from environmental activists, launching a small-scale pilot program in Beverly to try source-separated recycling–that is, residents were given blue containers for their recyclable paper, plastic, metal, and glass. The materials were picked up from the alleys and trucked to a sophisticated sorting facility in south suburban Chicago Ridge. Resource Management, the firm that owns and runs the facility, paid the city between $30 and $50 a ton, sorted the recyclables by type, and shipped them to other companies around the world for a profit.

Last fall Daley announced that the Blue Cart pilot program would be expanded to seven wards by this summer. City officials were shocked when most aldermen began loudly lobbying to be included. Among them was Helen Shiller of the 46th Ward. Once the mayor’s fiercest council critic, she’s become an ally over the last several years, backing Daley initiatives and receiving help from his administration on several big development projects. Her ward was an attractive candidate for the pilot program, with a wide range of cultural groups, income levels, and housing types–single-family homes, condos, medium-size apartment buildings, and several of the largest residential high-rises in the city. Sure enough, a few weeks later the city chose the 46th Ward along with the 1st, 5th, 8th, 19th, 37th, and 47th. The city announced this summer that low-density residents in the pilot wards have been keeping more than 12 percent of their paper, plastic, glass, metal, and wood out of landfills, a rate about 50 percent higher than in wards that are still using blue bags.

Shiller, though, didn’t think the Blue Cart program went far enough, especially in her ward, where thousands of residents live in buildings that aren’t served by city garbage crews. She told officials with Streets and Sanitation, which is charged with carrying out the city’s recycling programs, and the Department of Environment, which is responsible for recycling education and enforcement, that she wanted to conduct a concurrent study that would measure recycling in high-density residences. She says the city lent its support, though it didn’t offer any money. Instead, Department of Environment officials appealed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in August awarded a $40,000 grant to Shiller’s proposed project, known as the Chicago Multi-Unit Recycling Study Project.

The study is necessary, Shiller says, because the city’s 14-year-old high-density recycling ordinance simply hasn’t been effective. “The current ordinance uses the same plan and generalizes the city as a whole. I figured that if we did it that way again, we’d have some buildings who can’t afford to do what we ask them to do. We need to measure what people are already doing and get other people involved who want to do it.”

The alderman didn’t come out and say it, but Chicago’s high-density law is so inconsequential that the city doesn’t even know how little recycling these buildings are doing. Based on anecdotal evidence and sometimes vague or incomplete reports from garbage haulers, it estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of high-density residential waste is recycled. That’s well below the city’s initial goal of recycling 12 percent of this waste by 1996 and just a fraction of the EPA’s 2008 target of 35 percent or the city’s 2010 mark of 60 percent.

The 46th Ward study aims to help the city boost the rate to at least 30 percent. For the next year, city officials, volunteers, and waste consultants plan to collect data from more than 20 high-density buildings, identify barriers to recycling, connect building managers and owners with recycling providers, create recycling plans for different kinds of buildings, develop educational materials, and come up with suggested amendments to city laws.

Though the study has been up and running for just a couple months, it’s already had an impact. Every week representatives from new buildings call Shiller’s office asking for recycling information. Some have set aside space to collect materials. With the help of waste consultants, a few have negotiated new garbage and recycling contracts that have saved them money. Several have discovered that their previous efforts weren’t actually accomplishing anything.

“We’ve identified a couple of places where people are separating their stuff, but it’s not even getting taken out of there without being thrown in with the rest of the trash,” Shiller says. “It would be better if they were just using blue bags. Hopefully what we’re learning will be included in the ordinance later on.”

Fine’s 901-unit building on Irving Park, which is in Shiller’s ward, has been an early success story. Last winter Fine and other condo association leaders attended a forum sponsored by the alderman’s office and were referred to a pair of waste consultants for help in negotiating better services. With the consultants’ guidance, the association worked out a deal with a new company for both garbage and recycling collection that will save the building more than $1,000 this year.

A bin is now positioned in the middle of the building’s first-floor mail room to encourage people to recycle their junk mail, and additional bins are located next to the trash chutes on each floor. Signs posted above them let people know they can throw all their paper, plastic, metal, and glass into the carts together. Residents are now recycling about 7 percent of the ten tons of trash they generate each month, up from almost nothing earlier this year. Fine says they’re shooting for 20 percent. “The only complaint we’ve had is that we fill the bins,” he says. “We need more bins.”

Rae Mindock, a consultant to Shiller on the high-density study, cautions that not every building will have as easy a time. “There’s really a lot of challenges,” she says. Many buildings will initially have to pay more for recycling, struggle to find the space or staffing needed, or work to overcome communication problems among residents who don’t all speak the same language. But there’s also growing interest in confronting those challenges, even beyond the 46th Ward. In mid-October, Eugene Schulter, alderman of the neighboring 47th Ward, invited his constituents to a meeting with private waste haulers and city officials to discuss how to set up their own high-density recycling programs. The meeting was spurred by calls from condo and apartment residents wanting to know how they could get the kind of recycling services offered by the Blue Cart program.

Julie Dick of the Recycling Coalition board says the 46th Ward pilot is a sign of progress, but adds that the city should move faster to implement similar programs in other wards. “This is what the city can do–try to get meetings together with people in different areas so this approach can be replicated in other parts of the city,” Dick says. “And we shouldn’t have to wait years–we know what works.”

As recycling advocates note, the 46th Ward study has also shown that logistical problems and shortfalls with the ordinance aren’t the only reasons high-density recycling has stalled in Chicago. Before feeling pressure recently from Shiller, other aldermen, and thousands of frustrated residents, the city never considered it a high priority. “I think this study is appropriate, because it’s going to take a partnership with industry to make this work,” says Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley, who as chief of staff to former 44th Ward alderman Bernard Hansen helped write the city’s high-density recycling ordinance. At the same time, he added, the city needs to be serious about its own commitment. “No matter what happens with rewriting the law, they’ve got to enforce the damn thing.”

The Burke-Hansen ordinance requires condo associations and other property managers to develop plans to recycle at least three kinds of material. These plans are supposed to be made available to building residents and city officials at any time during business hours, and they’re also supposed to be accompanied by aggressive education and promotion programs to ensure resident participation.

Burke-Hansen also proclaims that “source-separation recycling is hereby recognized as the preferred method of recycling in the city.” Experts consider this approach slightly less convenient for residents but more effective at extracting materials than what’s called “postcollection” recycling, in which recyclables are pulled from the trash after it’s been picked up. Though source separation demands that residents know what to sort out of the garbage, it also tends to recover a higher share of recyclable materials and keep them in better condition.

The ordinance urges the managers of high-density buildings to develop source-separated recycling programs with their waste haulers, but it also leaves them an out. “A building may use post-collection separation as the sole method of recycling if the building can demonstrate an undue economic, safety or space hardship,” it says. “Demonstrate” is the key word: these buildings are required to prove they can’t afford or don’t have room to do source separation by including in their recycling plans a description of the building’s layout and waste disposal costs.

When buildings don’t comply with the ordinance the city can provide education and technical assistance while allowing “reasonable time” for programs to get off the ground. If the buildings don’t show any effort to improve, though, the city can levy fines of up to $100 a day.

A companion ordinance provides an additional incentive to condo buildings. Even before 1993, condo associations were allowed to apply for refuse rebates–money they were paying in taxes for city garbage collection even though private waste haulers pick up their trash. Each condo association could receive $75 per housing unit from the city by showing proof of payment for private garbage services. Under a 1993 amendment written by Hansen and Quigley, the condo associations also have to show proof of a recycling program.

Quigley says these measures were designed to be flexible enough to work for all of the city’s high-density residential buildings, whether they were five-unit apartments or 900-unit condominiums. Waste haulers and building managers and owners had input when he was drafting the ordinances. “We had them all in the room,” Quigley says. “We wanted to be able to enforce the law and give them plenty of options for recycling.”

But the law has rarely been enforced. “We had some building owners saying, ‘Enforce it–make us do it,’ while some of them didn’t even know it existed,” Quigley says. “But the city said, ‘We don’t want to offend the condo owners and high-rises.'”

The law stagnated. The city didn’t start conducting recycling inspections at high-density buildings or businesses–which Burke-Hansen also required to recycle–until October 2004, nearly a decade after the law was supposed to have gone into effect. “Our initial efforts in the enforcement process, in keeping with the ordinance, sought the voluntary cooperation of the governing bodies, officers, and officials involved with the high-density structures and commercial establishments in question,” explains Streets and Sanitation spokesman Matt Smith.

It’s clear, though, that few residential buildings have been pushed to comply with the law. Smith says his department doesn’t have any record of citations and referred questions about them to the Department of Environment. A spokesman there says that between November 2006 and early September of this year, the city conducted 441 recycling inspections and issued 106 tickets. All involved businesses, none residential buildings.

“Frankly, almost everyone ignores the law,” says Paul Ruesch, an environmental engineer with the EPA’s Chicago office. “We just haven’t had much luck in finding the political will to enforce the ordinances, or, when you get in front of the [city] administrative hearing officer, they’re just not very excited about putting the hammer down on a building owner that isn’t recycling.”

The condo-rebate ordinance has, by most counts, been more effective at encouraging recycling than Burke-Hansen, but it hasn’t lived up to its original billing either. The ordinance says that rebates are contingent on the “implementation of a recycling program by governing associations or boards,” though it doesn’t specify what kind of proof the city needs.

Condo associations and boards currently have to provide the City Council’s finance committee, which processes the rebates, with a notarized statement explaining how they’re recycling. But they need to do this only once, not every year, and some condominiums have to wait months for their rebates because the $6 million budgeted annually for the program runs out each year. “It’s chronically underfunded and has been for a long time,” says Donal Quinlan, the spokesman for finance committee chairman Ed Burke. “So some condo associations have to wait.”

The Chicago Recycling Coalition and other advocates blame Daley’s failure to enforce high-density recycling on his commitment to the Blue Bag program. Politically, the advocates say, it was unfeasible for city officials to force high-density buildings and private waste haulers to provide better recycling services than the city was; doing so would be an admission that the Blue Bag program was second-rate. So in many instances officials allowed building managers to tell their residents they could blue-bag their recyclables even though their private waste haulers didn’t have the infrastructure to fish them out of the trash. Other buildings weren’t even forced to go through the motions of pretending to recycle. In both cases, most recyclable materials ended up in landfills.

“No one really knows if any of these private haulers are pulling anything out of the trash,” says Julie Dick. “It’s really a pity. The residential waste stream is a huge loss.”

In contrast to Chicago, other cities have aggressively worked to overcome barriers to high-density residential recycling.

New York City rolled out its recycling program in the late 1980s. Within a few years residents citywide were required by law to place their paper, metal, glass, and plastic into separate containers that building owners purchase and label. Space is at an even greater premium than it is in Chicago, and millions more residents are involved. But every residence in New York City is served by public sanitation crews, whether it’s a single-family home or a high-rise with thousands of units, which eliminates the logistical problem of coordinating efforts among dozens of private waste haulers.

Robert Lange, the director of the New York sanitation department’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, says city laws hold both building managers and tenants responsible for participating in the program. Landlords are required to provide space for the separated materials, whether in a garbage chute room, a laundry room, or elsewhere, and to give tenants clear information on how to recycle. In turn, the tenants are supposed to follow through.

New York City spends at least $6 million a year on education and promotion–including direct mail, radio and television ads, information packets, and a comprehensive Web site with an e-mail help line–and it also comes down harder on recalcitrant residents and managers. Sanitation crews have the authority to tear open garbage bags they suspect include recyclables. Anytime they establish who’s responsible, they issue a warning or a $25 ticket. “Egregious violators” are forced to put their garbage in clear plastic bags for easier inspection.

High-density buildings in New York now recycle between 17 and 19 percent of their waste, about the citywide average. Lange would like to see those numbers climb to 25 percent. “Ticketing is not something that necessarily gets mayors reelected,” he says. “But there’s an effort from some public officials to substantially increase those fines, especially for multifamily buildings, because they have a far greater environmental impact than the others.”

Los Angeles has taken a different approach. As in Chicago, city garbage crews serve dwellings with four or fewer units while private companies are hired for high-density buildings. Los Angeles is much more spread out than Chicago, which means buildings often have more space for storage, but they may pay more for pickup because the routes take longer and use more fuel.

In 2002, Los Angeles passed a law requiring private waste haulers to contribute a fee, equal to 10 percent of their gross receipts, into a city fund for recycling programs. The fee was reduced if materials were sifted out of the trash for recycling, providing an incentive for the private firms to offer recycling services.

It didn’t work. “It wasn’t happening on its own,” says Michael Crossley, senior management analyst for the LA sanitation department’s recycling division. “You can try to legislate it, you can try to mandate it, but if people don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.”

So this summer, after a three-year pilot program, the city began offering free recycling carts and pickup to any multifamily unit whose manager signs up for it. The program is funded by the 10 percent “compliance fees” and is carried out by private companies hired by the city. According to Crossley, thousands of building managers have enlisted in the program, and more are expected each week as the word spreads. “The city realized there was a void, so we stepped in and eliminated the major hurdle, which was the cost,” he says.

Chicago officials have rejected a citywide, fully funded program like the one in Los Angeles. And barring an abrupt philosophical shift from a mayor who believes in nudging businesses toward environmentalism, it’s unlikely the Daley administration will mount an aggressive enforcement campaign.

Instead, both city officials and recycling advocates are advancing the idea that Chicago’s high-density buildings need a sustained education campaign that includes technical support in negotiating deals with waste haulers. The haulers, meanwhile, need to be persuaded that cooperating will be good for business. And, experts add, everyone involved has to see evidence that the city is committed.

“In the past, the city’s recycling hasn’t been very visible, and people don’t have confidence in it,” says Paul Ruesch of the EPA. “So part of this [46th Ward program] is education–getting people to buy in. The second part of it is getting the commercial haulers involved by offering separate pickup, taking the material to facilities to recover it, and offering some sort of contract so that if they’re getting money from the materials, the building owners can realize some sort of cost benefit from it.”

Leaders of the Chicago Recycling Coalition agree but warn that the city might also use the pilot program to once again delay serious action on high-density recycling. Until Streets and Sanitation offers source-separated recycling to all of its own customers, they say, it can hardly force private haulers to offer it to theirs.

They predict it will take several more years before the whole city has access to source-separated recycling at home.

In the meantime, aldermen are getting restless. In late August the City Council’s energy and environment committee met to sign off on the mayor’s appointment of Suzanne Malec-McKenna as the new environment commissioner. A longtime deputy in the department, she was easily confirmed, but not before council members shared their environmental wish lists with her. Among them were repeated requests that the city expand and improve its recycling programs.

Alderman Leslie Hairston’s Fifth Ward is part of the Blue Cart pilot program, but she said her constituents wanted even more recycling services. “From everything I’ve heard from my constituents, they’re looking to have it expanded, and those who are not constituents are looking to see how they can get it in their wards,” Hairston said. “So I would like to work with you to find a way not only for those people who receive city services, but for the condos and the other people who receive private scavenger services that are interested in participating in the Blue Cart recycling program.”

Malec-McKenna told Hairston that she and her department were working closely with Streets and Sanitation to improve recycling services citywide. “What I’ve heard from many aldermen is that they want to expand it throughout the city. I do look forward to working with you, alderman, and all of the aldermen on that, because it’s a challenge to getting it up and running–it’s a major effort to get everybody recycling together.”

The answer didn’t seem to satisfy Hairston completely, but her colleagues followed up for her. John Pope, a former Daley aide and alderman of the Tenth Ward, told Malec-McKenna that he was “very upset” that his ward wasn’t selected for the Blue Cart program: “We were kind of offended that we didn’t get a chance to get curbside recycling.” He asked her to work aggressively to find more alternatives to landfilling.

Pope was followed by 37th Ward alderman Emma Mitts, who said she was thrilled to be participating in the Blue Cart program, and First Ward alderman Manny Flores, who asked Malec-McKenna how familiar she was with recycling in high-density buildings.

Malec-McKenna said she knew that 80 percent of the city’s waste comes from businesses and high-density residences. “We know that this is a challenge,” she said. “There is a need to work closely with our private haulers.”

“Oh, I know,” Flores said. “And it’s already a law that if you are in a residential condominium you are supposed to be presenting some kind of plan.”

But because some condos were receiving rebates despite not recycling, he continued, he was preparing legislation that would require them to present receipts for their recycling costs if they wanted a rebate. “I think we’re forgoing a tremendous opportunity in terms of our recycling,” Flores said. (He introduced the ordinance in September, and it was forwarded to the council’s finance committee for consideration.)

“I agree that more needs to be done to specify how they need to be recycling, because there is a very big lost opportunity there,” Malec-McKenna said. “So I look forward to working with you on that ordinance, tightening it up but also working with the private haulers so they understand what this ordinance says and educate them about the opportunities so they can keep their businesses going and also recycle more materials.”

Nineteenth Ward alderman Virginia Rugai, the committee’s chairman, wrapped up the meeting a few minutes later. “I think you’ve heard your marching orders today,” she told the new commissioner. “This committee has gone, over the period that I’ve been here, from a lack of interest in the beginning in recycling, other than in a few wards, and it was made to appear almost elitist. And I think you’re hearing now from every single alderman their interest in a quality recycling program. And I think we need to move on it quickly.”

Malec-McKenna agreed.