Chicago was built on garbage.

Early boomtown settlers in this swamp of wild onions filled the muddy streets with their trash. After the great fire of 1871, rebuilders swept debris into the lake, pushing the city limits eastward. As the metropolis expanded, citizens continued to dump their waste in the remaining marshes and the poorer outlying neighborhoods, and even into Lake Michigan.

Yet by the late 19th century, Chicagoans had begun to worry about their garbage: the dumping affronted both their aesthetic sensibilities and the new science of public health. With big-shoulders bravado, the city has tried over the subsequent century to burn, reduce, and hide its wastes. But although the garbage may have changed–less manure and coal ash today, more paper and plastic–it has not gone away. Each year Chicagoans toss out in household waste alone the rough equivalent in weight of seven and a half Sears Towers, or about three pounds per person per day.

Chicago politics was built on garbage, too. Private contractors ripped off the city until turn-of-the-century reformers got local government to take over collection. Streets and Sanitation was for many decades the meat and sinew of patronage employment, a costly and bloated work force better known for political servitude than public service. In many neighborhoods, the local precinct worker gave away trash cans before election day to secure loyalty in the voting booth. As long as the garbage was picked up, conventional wisdom claimed, the citizens of Chicago would generously indulge their politicians.

The politics of garbage has never vanished, nor has its odor substantially improved. The latest case in point is Chicago’s so-called blue-bag plan to meet state mandates to recycle more waste. Promoted as a bargain-basement, no-hassle solution to a big problem, it’s likely to balloon into a costly fiasco: a “recycling” plan that doesn’t seriously recycle and instead sets the stage for building massive, environmentally dangerous waste incinerators.

Garbage is a chronic big-city headache that periodically erupts as a migraine. The latest eruption was precipitated by the growing difficulty in finding a place to dispose of trash: landfill capacity in Cook County will probably be exhausted within a couple of years. As even the most modern landfills pose environmental risks, it’s unsurprising that few people want a new landfill in their neighborhood.

The main alternative disposal strategy is incineration. Burning can turn garbage into energy, but it also converts it into air pollution (including extremely toxic chemicals called dioxins and furans) and ash (which leaves, by weight, about 30 percent of the original trash in a concentrated and toxic form still to be landfilled). Incinerators are no more popular than landfills.

Increasingly, people realize that much waste material was unnecessary in the first place, packaging being a leading example. There is also growing public awareness that many of our leftovers–cans, bottles, newspapers, paper, yard waste, some plastics, even some food waste–are usable resources. They become garbage only when they’re tossed together into the wastebasket, loaded in the garbage truck, and hauled to the dump. “Garbage,” says Chicago’s dean of recycling, Ken Dunn of the Resource Center, “is simply a resource in the wrong place.”

In toting up our economy’s balance sheet, private businesses and also the government have long failed to take into full account the cost of putting that resource in the wrong place.

Even when new raw materials for making, say, newspapers or bottles are cheaper to come by than recycled discards, the savings gained by avoiding disposal can often justify recycling economically. But it’s an economy easy to overlook.

Our old garbage ethic relied on the illusion of disposal. Out of sight was out of mind. The new ecological perspective recalls a favorite proverb from the Hausa in the arid regions of northern Nigeria: he who shits in the shade sits in the sun.

Some of this new awareness is creeping into law. Illinois now requires its counties and the city of Chicago to develop plans to reduce waste and to recycle at least 25 percent of municipal solid waste by 1996. Also, no yard waste can be dumped in landfills. And last year the City Council passed an ordinance introduced by Alderman Bernie Hansen requiring some kind of recycling services to be available throughout the city by July of 1993.

This is not the dawn of recycling in Chicago. Throughout the city’s history there have been private scavengers and ragpickers scouring the dumps and alleys. Early in the century, residents were obliged to separate their putrescible from their nonputrescible wastes. But the biggest recycling efforts were responses to war shortages. During World War I, jail inmates were put to work picking through government wastes. “Turn your scrap materials into war materials now,” one World War II poster urged. “Salvage for Victory!”

The earliest source separation of garbage in Chicago was linked to a scheme in the first decades of this century to reduce organic wastes with solvents that removed fats, which were then sold to make soap. The residue was used to make fertilizer. The reduction process ran as a private business from 1905 to 1914, when repeated problems led the city to take it over. The operation was abandoned in 1929. The enterprise inspired one George E. Dyck, an industrial chemist with the Chicago Bureau of Waste, to pen this verse:

There is wealth in waste,

Also waste in wealth;

Save the waste of wealth,

Turning waste into wealth.

From the 1880s to the present, Chicago has also burned its garbage. New environmental standards imposed by the Clean Air Act of 1970 eventually shut down the city’s three incinerators operating then. But this did not eliminate burning. In 1976 the city built a $30 million refuse-derived fuel (RDF) plant next to Commonwealth Edison’s Crawford Generating Station on the southwest side. It was poorly designed, and after two years of sporadic tests, burning was halted there.

But the Northwest Incinerator, the world’s largest when it went into service in ’71, continues to burn about 20 percent of all of Chicago’s garbage. Now more than 20 years old, the Northwest Incinerator must soon be shut down or refurbished at a cost of $25 million, according to city estimates.

The history of waste efforts in Chicago, as in most big cities, shows a bias toward the massive project, the technical fix, the engineering solution. But “part of the reason we have a waste crisis is because for a long time engineers were put in charge of waste management,” argues Anne Scheinberg, president of Recourse Systems, a Massachusetts-based waste consulting firm, “and waste is not an engineering problem but a social problem.”

The first signs of new thinking in Chicago came when Harold Washington, responding to protests from constituents in Ed Vrdolyak’s southeast-side ward about the concentration of dumps in their community, ordered a moratorium on new city landfills. Besides commissioning studies into new approaches to solid-waste management, Washington did little more than provide limited subsidies allowing not-for-profit recycling groups to operate curbside collection programs.

Despite mounting pressures, Mayor Sawyer and Mayor Daley also moved slowly. Daley boosted the payments to not-for-profit recyclers. He also awarded a contract to Waste Management, Inc., to set up a “drop box” for recyclable materials in each ward. This program, less than a year old, has proved extremely expensive per ton recycled. Ken Dunn’s Resource Center, which bid on the same contract, collects nearly twice as much in its two drop-off centers as Waste Management does citywide. The city now pays about $100 per ton to Waste Management for what it collects, while the Resource Center’s bid called for a fee of no more than $36.50 a ton.

Oakbrook-based Waste Management, the world’s largest private waste-handling corporation, has a checkered history: over the past decade–according to a Greenpeace study–it has paid out more than $28 million in fines and settlements for price-fixing, bid-rigging, and other constraints of trade, and another $43 million in penalties for environmental-law violations. (Waste Management says it paid less than half those sums over the past two decades.) Because of this record, Waste Management would have been ineligible to receive the drop-box contract had it not been for a change in the law that Daley put through early in his tenure as mayor.

In the fall of 1989, the Department of Streets and Sanitation tested a limited recycling plan in four wards. Residents were asked to put metal cans, glass bottles, and milk-jug-style plastic containers in reusable blue plastic boxes. In large part because the plan did not include newspapers (the heaviest recyclables) and because there was no modification of the union contract requiring three workers on each garbage truck (nonprofit recyclers use one worker), the cost per ton recycled averaged $672, more than six times what the city pays the Resource Center and Uptown Recycling, both not-for-profits, for their curbside collection.

Recycling is hardly integral to the culture at Streets and San, where the ability to heft heavy garbage cans is valued above a crusading spirit to save the environment. Division superintendents like Mike Schivarelli, now deputy commissioner, bridled at having to deal with new types of equipment and having to schedule more routes through the neighborhoods. To these traditional operations managers, Schivarelli said, the overriding question was, “How do we get a truck to go down this alley and pick up everything in the alley and eliminate routing problems?”

Nobody wanted to discuss changes in the union contract: there had been near rebellion when Washington reduced crews from four to three (still larger than in virtually any other city). Furthermore, Daley had a deep political stake in holding the line on property taxes: more than anything else, tax restraint would cement the loyalties of his bungalow-belt base. Schivarelli said the prevailing considerations were therefore: first, operations; second, taxes; and third, manpower and equipment. Environmental goals hardly figured at all. On the strength of Streets and San’s halfhearted execution of the trial project, Chicago seemed incapable of offering curb or alley collection of materials that had been “source-separated” (meaning the papers had been separated from containers and recyclables from other garbage).

If the city had taken seriously the state’s 1988 law directing it to create a solid-waste strategy, it would have promptly convened a solid-waste-management advisory group to make plans for the next 20 years. Yet even though the law mandated that the city submit a plan by March 1, 1991, the advisory group–the Solid Waste Management Review Committee–didn’t start meeting until October 1990, and only completed its final draft for public review in August. Instead, the city’s real plans were being formulated secretively by Daley’s team without the broad public involvement required by law.

Streets and San officials became increasingly interested in a recycling plan employing plastic bags and the city’s compactor garbage trucks. (There had been some discussion in professional journals of using plastic bags instead of the more traditional reusable boxes, and a few cities were testing them.) Deputy Commissioner Tim Harrington says, “I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I initiated the whole program, but I pushed it to the forefront.”

The developing plan had three components. The city would collect plastic bags filled with an unsorted mixture of recyclables (“commingled,” in recycling lingo). These “blue bags” of cans, newspapers, and glass and plastic bottles would be tossed into the compactor trucks along with the regular garbage. Sanitation workers would drive the trucks to newly built, privately operated but publicly financed processing stations called Materials Recycling and Recovery Facilities (MRRFs, rhymes with Smurfs). Workers would pull out the blue bags, open them, and separate the recyclables. Meanwhile the conventional stream of garbage would move down a conveyor for some likely combination of mechanical and hand sorting, often referred to as mixed solid-waste processing.

According to one reliable source, a representative of Waste Management approached top mayoral aides sometime early in 1990 with a proposal very much like the one the mayor later announced. According to this source, the figures used to justify the city’s claims for dramatic cost savings, which have never been explained or documented, are derived mainly from Waste Management’s secret proposal. City officials reportedly concluded that as Waste Management is not in the business of losing money its proposal must be a sound one.

Politics ultimately guided the decision. Daley, whose eye on the bottom line has led to policy myopia in other areas, was aghast at reports of huge costs in New York and other big cities just starting to recycle. But he was under legal pressure to develop a program, and he needed the support of lakefront voters, who were understood to be environmentally attuned.

He also needed a campaign issue. Something that looked big and bold. Hang caution, flexibility, testing. Months later, after mayoral aide Frank Kruesi had heard a long litany of criticisms of the plan, he responded, “Well, at least it was bold.”

The parameters were set. Keep it cheap; no new taxes. Make it easy on Streets and San; no changes in personnel, contracts, management, or mentality. Be bold; image is everything. Trust in big business and technocracy.

Last October, Daley announced that the city would solicit bids for seven-year contracts to build and operate four to six MRRFs, and that Streets and San would collect blue-bagged recyclables along with the garbage. The department also released results of a four-ward test of blue bags.

As a political ploy, the plan backfired. Not only was it immediately denounced by environmentalists and recycling organizations, especially the Chicago Recycling Coalition, but it also received strongly critical reviews from the companies who were likely local buyers of the recycled materials. Remarkably, given their solid support for Daley, the Tribune, the Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, and other establishment voices editorially attacked the plan and urged that it be reconsidered. Alderman Bernie Hansen, a former ward superintendent, criticized the blue-bag plan as a “Chevrolet” when the city deserved a “Cadillac.” Hansen introduced an alternative plan, based on a proposal by the Chicago Recycling Coalition, to expand curb/alley collection of source-separated materials. But the City Council relegated Hansen’s amendment to committee and approved Daley’s plan. With no hearings and little discussion, the council took what could be its only official action on a major policy decision with financial and environmental consequences for many years to come.

(For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that Jo Patton, executive director of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, an alliance of not-for-profit recyclers, community groups, and environmentalists, is my wife. The coalition itself has no financial stake in the city’s decision, although some of its members could. My own preferred policy differs in some ways from what the coalition advocates.)

Now Streets and San, in total secrecy, is reviewing bids from eight companies to build four MRRFs at a city-estimated cost of $30 million and to operate them at an estimated cost of $117 million over the next seven years. A contract could be signed this fall without any public review of the data on which it was based and without any debate on the alternatives. The city’s standard procedure is to treat contract proposals as secret, proprietary information; but this will not be a standard contract. What’s involved, as Tim Harrington has said repeatedly, is the city’s overall solid-waste-management strategy for years to come (although creating that strategy happens to be the state-mandated mission of the Solid Waste Management Review Committee).

The Solid Waste Management Review Committee never conducted a serious debate of the city’s plan or considered proposing a different strategy. That’s not surprising: much of the panel had little knowledge of either solid wastes or recycling. Technical advice came from city officials and from consultants with no track record in recycling but a strong commitment to incineration. And the panel lacked the will to be truly independent, in part because many appointees were political allies of Daley. For example, after the spring elections, one member sidled up to Alderman Edwin Eisendrath to express dismay that Alderman Helen Shiller, an opponent of the blue-bag plan, had not been defeated.

The failure of the committee was preordained. The proof is in its report: it is mainly an endorsement of what the city is doing already. It offers a few modest suggestions, defers judgment on most major issues, and lays the groundwork for expansion of incineration.

What is the city’s case for the blue-bag plan?

First and foremost, city officials claim it’s cheaper. They also claim it will be more convenient and flexible. They have implied that poor people might be more likely to use it. But by far their strongest argument is the cost.

What is the case against the city’s plan?

First, there’s the issue of how the decision was made. No waste collectors, processors, or users or advocates of recycling were involved. The city made no serious attempt to evaluate alternatives or to investigate ways of making tried-and-true recycling techniques work using city employees.

The city relied solely on the Hansen/Chicago Recycling Coalition proposal for information on the source-separated recycling alternative–refusing to seek more detail than that proposal provided. Furthermore, at every turn the city has grossly misrepresented the Hansen/CRC proposal, even after repeated testimony before the solid-waste committee and the City Council’s energy and environment committee pointing out the falsifications. In addition, Streets and San has threatened critics of the blue-bag plan, such as the Resource Center, with loss of their existing city contracts if they continue to speak out.

Second, the city is imposing a single plan on an extremely varied city. Even if it were true that what the city insists on calling the “suburban” model of curbside collection of separated recyclables would be difficult in parts of Chicago, many other parts are not so different from suburbs. Why not tailor different plans to different neighborhoods? Besides accommodating the reality of the city, an area-by-area approach would provide a laboratory in which to test and refine recycling techniques.

The blue-bag collection system is still new to the waste industry. In Chicago it has undergone limited real testing: the use of the bags in two neighborhoods last spring was billed by the city as a “demonstration” of how well the system worked, not as a test. The results coming in from around the country for the collection of commingled recyclables have not been very encouraging.

But the most critical feature of the city’s program is not the blue bag itself: the fight is not really about containers. Nor is it about the commingling of different recyclables in the same bag, troublesome though that is. It’s about “cocollection”–the tossing of recyclable materials into the compactor garbage truck along with the rest of the garbage. Only one other city–Omaha, Nebraska–has attempted cocollection. The results of the short experiment there raise a big yellow caution flag: the first contractor went bankrupt in a few months, and the second is charging processing rates far higher than the Chicago plan anticipates.

Furthermore, Chicago’s plan also emphasizes a completely different approach: mixed-waste processing. Mixed-waste processing involves using a variety of manual and mechanical operations–including magnets for steel cans and blowers for paper–to separate theoretically recyclable components from the regular stream of garbage.

There are several reasons why this is worrisome. First, each of the MRRFs the city has ordered is several times the size of any similar existing facility. Second, the MRRFs will attempt to combine as-yet-untested approaches for retrieving and opening the plastic bags and then sorting through the contents with mixed-waste processing, which has so far been an overwhelming failure in its limited trials in the United States (including a plant in southwest-suburban Crestwood). Mixed-waste processing has proved itself good for one thing: cleaning noncombustible and toxic substances from waste prior to incineration.

What the city’s plan anticipates and prepares for is expanded incineration. Although city officials brush off this suggestion, the report of the Solid Waste Management Review Committee makes it clear that incineration is still a major option for Chicago. However, research by environmentalist Barry Commoner and experience in New Jersey demonstrate that incineration is in direct conflict with a waste regime of intensive recycling and composting. Incinerators rely on burning much of what can be recycled or composted, and once they are built, they demand a steady stream of combustible materials.

The city’s plan would yield recycled materials less clean and uncontaminated than would be provided by source-separated methods. Inferior quality means reduced revenues. It also means recyclable materials that will be less likely to enter a closed loop–in which old newspapers become new newspapers, old bottles and cans new bottles and cans. Instead, the glass might be ground up to be used in sandblasting, landfill cover, or road construction (“glasphalt”); the paper might be composted or turned into fuel. These uses would keep the materials out of landfills, but they wouldn’t bring the environmental benefits of full recycling.

But low-quality recyclables sometimes find no market at all, at least no market lucrative enough to cover the costs of hauling them to a buyer. During newsprint gluts, when even high-quality old newspaper is hard to sell, Ken Dunn of the Resource Center hauls his paper to processors anyway and operates at a loss. That won’t happen under the city plan.

One of the plan’s biggest loopholes permits materials to be counted as recycled under certain conditions even though they are actually dumped in landfills. The big waste companies that would build and operate the MRRFs for the city have 120 days to market their waste materials. If these materials can’t be sold above cost, the companies will be permitted to landfill them and still regard them as recycled. Furthermore, the city will pay the costs of landfilling.

So having constructed a plan likely to lead to marketing problems, the city may very well end up giving superprofits to the waste companies that own their own landfills while making no environmental or disposal progress. And this expensive charade will be credited with fulfilling the goals of “recycling.”

There’s also a little-noticed but major flaw in the city’s plan to separately collect and compost yard waste. State law prohibits putting yard waste in landfills. Yard waste makes up approximately 19 percent of municipal solid waste, but in its first six months of collecting separately bagged yard waste, the city actually diverted from landfills only 13,000 tons, about 6 or 7 percent of the estimated total yard waste. In the first half of this year, Chicago collected just 11,000 tons.

At present, yard waste is cocollected with garbage in 15 of the city’s wards; under the blue-bag program it will be cocollected in all 50. There has never been a test of how the new paper bags for yard waste hold up in a compactor truck, but they weren’t designed for such treatment. In plastic bags, which the city has hinted it might shift to, yard waste tends to putrefy, making composting more difficult and aesthetically objectionable. There is every indication that the city’s new waste plan will violate state law requiring that yard waste be kept out of landfills.

Finally, the city’s plans–from both Streets and San and the Solid Waste Management Review Committee–fail to view the city’s wastes as resources for economic development. If the city thought in terms of the maximum number of jobs that could be created by using valuable materials in the waste stream, it would focus on maintaining high quality and on maximizing recycling. It would be working with private and nonprofit groups to turn the city’s waste into the highest-value end products possible. This would bring in revenue and create jobs and also help create local markets for the recycled goods. Now, for example, it’s hard to market recycled green glass bottles because there is no local glass manufacturer who uses green glass. The city gives virtually no attention to the economic-development potential of recycling.

One critical issue is the quality of the recycled materials. Jay Sherwood, president of the Illinois Recycling Association and manager of the recycling division of Crown Cork & Seal, Inc., a major purchaser of recycled materials, explained that every user has quality criteria. For example, the aluminum used in cans is rolled increasingly thin. Any speck of dust or glass can lead to pinholes in the sheet. Scraps of plastic become safety hazards that Sherwood said “can catch fire and burn up the equipment.”

Fran Mazenko, a regional manager for Owens-Brockway Glass Container, Inc., explained that contaminants can foul up a glass processor and cause problems in the furnace. When bottles are broken and the pieces not separated by color, at best the glass can be used for landfill cover, glasphalt, or sandblasting (with a value of $6 a ton compared with $50 a ton for recycled glass). Clearly the city anticipates that much of its so-called “recycled” glass will be used in this low-value fashion. Chicago’s recycling coordinator, David Robinson, recently argued that recycled glass can make up no more than 20 percent of a batch of raw materials, and therefore it’s impossible for glass companies to recycle everything. But Kevin Hardie, director of the central states glass recycling program for the Glass Packaging Institute, reports that on average glass furnaces now use 30 percent recycled content, and that European factories have gone as high as 100 percent with no problems.

There are similar problems with paper: contaminants clog the screens cleaning the slurry, or dissolved paper mix, and foster the growth of slimes and molds that make the final product nearly worthless.

Streets and San seems to think that processors will learn to live with the quality of recyclables that the city provides in order to keep receiving such huge quantities. Maybe they’ll pay a little lower price, but so what?

“If anything is substandard, I will not pay a lower price to get it,” Sherwood says. “It’s erroneous for the city to think if it’s less desirable we’ll be able to market it at lower value. With overabundance of paper and glass, if the product doesn’t meet specific standards there’s no reason to buy something substandard, no matter what the price.”

There are two compelling reasons why the quality of recyclables is likely to become more, not less, important in coming years. First, every community in the country–not just the ones in Illinois–will come under greater legislative and economic pressure to recycle. “With increased supplies of recyclables, people who buy recycled materials are five times more picky today than they were five years ago or even one year ago,” reports Ronald Perkins, director of recycling operations for the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, an industry trade organization. “If they have a choice of your [Chicago’s] program or clean suburban, sorted materials, whose will they take?”

Second, many processors are attempting to raise the percentage of recycled materials they use. “As the recycled content goes up, the mills have less room to play around with in terms of adding virgin materials to produce a quality product,” reports Steve Apotheker, technical editor of Resource Recyling, one of the leading trade journals. “The recycled materials have to be closer to the performance standards of virgin materials.

“A city like Chicago that shoots for the low end right away may say the difference is only between $10 a ton [for their inferior recycled material] and $15 a ton [for the top grade], but in a few years it could be a difference between $20 a ton and $60 a ton.”

Those enormous revenues, which Chicago appears likely to miss out on, could eventually pay the costs of a good recycling program, even one that was initially more expensive.

But will Chicago’s blue-bag program actually produce inferior goods?

The ultimate test is the market, but Chicago plans to plunge ahead without a serious test of marketability. Its initial demonstration tests have not been encouraging. After a 1990 test of commingled recyclables in blue bags collected separately from regular garbage, the city claimed to have found a buyer for its blue-bagged newsprint: it turned out the buyer dumped the newsprint in a landfill. In the 1991 test of blue bags collected with the garbage, the company responsible for sorting the recyclables–Chicago Recycling Works–said it sold the newspaper to Chicago Paperboard Corporation. However, Chicago Paperboard denies ever buying paper from Chicago Recycling Works. Even if it did, Chicago Paperboard produces only cardboard. The recycling loop of newspaper into newspaper could not have been closed.

The city has hailed the 1991 test as a great success. Yet even the city admits that 10 percent of the blue bags were so mauled by the compactor trucks that the contents couldn’t be recovered. Then there was another 10 percent loss of materials from breakage and contamination. All recycling operations lose some material, but that’s in the upper range. (Apotheker estimates the typical loss from source-separated collection at 0 to 3 percent.) Up front, that means one-fifth of the material citizens put out for recycling will be lost, which hardly encourages participation.

Casual observation of one day’s collection as it was unloaded at the site of the abandoned Southwest Supplemental Fuel Facility showed that much newspaper was heavily contaminated; aluminum cans had the grit of broken glass embedded in them; and many bottles were broken. It was obvious that the contents of some bags had at least partly spilled. (That morning, WBEZ program director Ken Davis put his specially marked blue bag in the garbage truck and waited for it to be retrieved: it showed up torn to shreds, with nothing in it.)

The National Solid Wastes Management Association, representing the waste industry, issued a brief report approving the blue-bag system as “the best approach” for Chicago, even though “diversion of materials from the residential waste stream was lower than that being achieved by programs recovering similar materials in other areas of the country.” But the report’s author, Darlene Snow, said she relied entirely on city-supplied data and never witnessed the actual operation. Instead, she viewed a city-edited videotape. To assess the quality of the recyclables, she interviewed mostly the program’s advocates from Streets and San.

In the test, after the compactor trucks had dumped their loads, workers separated out the blue bags from the garbage, which even on a cool day is foul smelling. Nobody will relish this job in the hot summer, and it’s ironic that unions endorse a plan that creates such miserable work.

It’s not just a matter of foul odors and low wages. Stooping over and stirring up the garbage exposes workers to a wide range of infectious agents. “We’ve had reports of people stuck by needles in mixed-waste plants,” says Apotheker. (And those plants are mainly in rural areas.) “I find it frustrating when people take one environmental risk [the risk posed by landfills] and impose it on workers who have to stand there pulling material out of garbage. I don’t see those issues being addressed.”

After being separated, the blue bags were sent to Chicago Recycling Works on the southeast side. There the bags were opened and the contents sorted. The city proudly quotes the owner of CRW as saying the quality was not very different from what curbside recycling offers.

But Vanessa Surney, the supervisor of the actual operation, tells a different story. “It’s poor, real poor [quality] as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “There’s so much contamination. They might as well just put it in the garbage if they’re going to send it to us in this condition.” She said the sorting was slow going. When WBBM filmed the sorting, Surney said, “we did it fast, but later [when TV cameras and officials left] we had to go back and separate again.”

“It’s so much worse than I expected,” said Jo Patton of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. “Source-separated stuff just doesn’t look like this. It’s just as dirty for the most part as the straight mixed-waste plant in Crestwood.”

An Illinois state environmental official who requested anonymity observed the city’s test. “I saw very few bags in the load, and most of what I saw were broken, torn, falling out, and dirty. The other thing startling to me was the amount of yard waste. It appears to be in obvious violation of the landscape waste ban.”

If the quality from the blue bags is low, just imagine the results from the mixed-waste processing, which involves no prior separation. “Mixed-waste facilities are a preposterous idea,” argues garbage consultant Anne Scheinberg. “They have a terrible track record in this country. Mixed-waste processing becomes a very expensive way of putting your stuff in a landfill. I would not advise a client to get into a situation where a product that is already hard to market [as is now true with many recyclables] is made more difficult.”

Yet precisely because the city will be relying on processing of the mixed waste after sorting the blue bags, many citizens will think: Why should I go to the trouble and expense of buying these bags? Why should I help out Waste Management, especially when there’s at least a one-in-five chance my recyclables won’t even make it through?

“There’s this thing you can’t quantify,” argues Ronald Perkins of the Council for Solid Waste Solutions. “People who see the blue bag going in the trash and people who are on the borderline [of participating] will say, “Why even bother putting it in the plastic bag?”‘ Only about 5 to 10 percent of household waste was diverted in the blue-bag test, compared to 24 percent in Minneapolis’s source-separated recycling program and 45 percent in Seattle’s. Less diversion means more reliance on mixed-waste processing and even lower overall quality. Lower quality means fewer and lower-priced markets and less closed-loop recycling.

Quality affects the economics of the plan, and the economics remain the most contentious issue. The city has offered its estimate of the costs involved but hasn’t documented how it arrived at these figures. It also is keeping secret the contract bids, but there are indications those bids are running higher than projected.

Over a seven-year period, the city will pay the costs of constructing the MRRFs and will pay interest on the money that was borrowed to build them. It also will pay to operate and maintain the MRRFs and to educate the public to recycle. The operator will keep any revenue from sales of recyclables, but the city will pay the cost of hauling and dumping residual material in landfills or incinerators. It will also pay to dispose of the so-called recycled materials that can’t be sold.

It’s a remarkable contract offer: the private operator assumes virtually no financial risk. Also, after two years, it can come back to the city to negotiate higher operating fees. Two of the most prominent bidders also have landfills that they own. With landfill fees going up (the city estimates they will rise from roughly $38 a ton now to nearly $90 a ton a decade from now, not counting inflation), these private companies are guaranteed handsome profits even if they run their MRRFs and recycling operations at a loss.

For the first seven years, the city estimates it will pay about $4.32 million a year in capital costs, about $12 million a year for operations and maintenance, and about $1 million for education. The city projects the diversion of 10 percent of the waste otherwise headed to landfills or incineration in the first year, progressing to 34 percent a decade from now. Over the years, both the amount of garbage diverted and the cost per ton of dumping in landfills are likely to increase. Therefore, savings–or costs avoided–will rise (tons diverted times dollars per ton of landfill fees). The city says it expects to pay $155 million over the first decade and save $180 million in landfill costs, for a net savings of $25 million.

The city also prepared an analysis of the Chicago Recycling Coalition proposal (not having developed its own alternative). The CRC proposal calls for the city to budget funds to contract with private nonprofit or profit-oriented enterprises. These contractors would use special recycling trucks to pick up source-separated recyclables (which could include glass, metal cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, and mixed papers) that would be placed in reusable containers, such as plastic bins. Streets and San analysts said that buying the bins would cost the city from $1.2 to $1.6 million a year in the first few years, then $585,000 a year. The city claimed the recycling service fee would be $10 million a year the first year, $30 million a year by the time the program covered the whole city. Hauling yard waste (according to a proposal separate from CRC’s) would be $11.9 million a year. Developing markets for recycled materials would cost $250,000 a year, and public education would again cost $1 million a year.

In its analysis, the city assumed the source-separated recycling would divert only 7 percent of Chicago’s total waste in the first year, and just 25 percent by the end of the decade. Since it would divert less, it would save the city less in landfill expenses. Chicago’s net cost for a decade would be $263 million, instead of the net savings of $25 million offered by the blue bags and MRRFs.

Case closed. Or is it?

Let’s look at the blue-bag/MRRF figures. The city submitted the data to Public Financial Management, Inc., a solid-waste finance firm (with expertise in incineration but very little experience with recycling), which dutifully ratified them. But Ronald Perkins has this to say about the city’s plan: “I don’t think it’s the most economical. I think their figures are ludicrous on costs.”

First, the city estimates that its MRRFs will be built for $11 to $13 million each. Since the proposed plants would be several times larger than the biggest waste-processing plants built so far in the U.S. and far more complicated, it’s hard to say what they should cost. But taking as a guide BioCycle magazine’s report on projected construction costs for the largest plants planned in other parts of the country, Chicago’s MRRFs might be expected to cost about $37.5 million each.

Second, the operating costs of existing high-technology processing plants average just under $50 a ton, according to BioCycle, with the most economical plant running at a cost of $20 a ton. In the only program remotely comparable to Chicago’s proposed system, the city of Omaha pays Waste Management, Inc., $18.95 a ton for processing all its garbage (and in Omaha, Waste Management does not do the kind of mixed-waste processing on which Chicago will rely heavily), according to a Waste Management spokesperson. In addition, to open the blue bags and sort the recyclables, Omaha pays Waste Management at least $469 a day, plus $13.25 more for every recycled ton beyond the first 30. So processing recycled materials costs around $35 a ton (actually more than that currently, since Omaha citizens’ response to their city’s infant blue-bag program has been tepid and the city isn’t yet up to 30 tons a day). Omaha does share in revenues from the sale of recyclables, which reduces the net cost somewhat.

Just raising the operating fee to Omaha’s level from Chicago’s estimated $10 a ton would add from $120 million to $300 million to the cost of Chicago’s program over a decade.

The city says it will save money over the next decade because its blue-bag/MRRF program will divert a large and rapidly rising portion of the city’s waste from landfills. The diversion goals are not unrealistic: several large-scale curbside recycling plans around the country already meet or exceed Chicago’s projections. But the city’s tests of its chosen methods show very low diversion of recyclables and a miserable record on compostable yard wastes. Nobody really knows how many people will participate and how much they will recycle until a plan is put into operation.

A recent Resource Recycling survey comparing curbside separation and commingled collection “strongly challenges the myth” that commingled collection with MRRFs yields more materials or costs less. More frequently, the collection of already separated materials generated more participation and material, produced more easily marketed goods, and cost less overall, the magazine discovered. Higher costs of collection were more than offset by lower processing costs and better prices. Source-separated recycling programs cost an average of $91 a ton for collection and processing; commingled recycling collection cost $129 a ton total–and produced more recycled waste.

A principle declares itself: a bigger investment in separating and collecting at the front end means lower processing costs at the back end; lower collection costs mean higher processing costs. The evidence from other cities–and best guesses about future markets–suggest that it’s smarter and cheaper overall to invest in the front end.

If low quality and contamination make it hard for MRRF operators to market recycled waste, the city will face additional costs of transporting the low-grade materials to landfills and paying private operators a steadily escalating landfill fee.

Furthermore, the city has specified that the contractors can return in two years to renegotiate higher operating fees. This will encourage a highly likely scenario: in order to get the contract, which will guarantee a lucrative flow of material into their landfills, big private waste companies are likely to understate their initial bids. Ronald Perkins said, “I expect Waste Management to really lowball it, since this is their hometown.”

Seemingly unprofitable tactics can be a shrewd part of an overall strategy. Indeed, Business Week reported that Waste Management has become a national leader in recycling, even though its recycling operations haven’t turned a profit, because getting control of recycling helps “to pull in business for WMI’s landfill operations, which boast a pretax profit margin of 20 percent.” Besides, many cities have found that private recycling contractors lowball initial contracts, then jack up the prices later when they’ve established their local monopolies and cities depend on them.

What about the city’s projections for the cost of curbside/alley collection of separated recyclables? Chicago officials have consistently misrepresented the Chicago Recycling Coalition’s estimates in a way that greatly exaggerates the curbside collection costs. The CRC/Hansen budget amendment proposed that recycling contractors be paid $100 per ton recycled. This proposal assumed (too optimistically) that 25 percent of Chicago’s 1.2 million tons of annual city-collected waste–or 300,000 tons–would be diverted, and therefore provided $30 million for recycling fees for the whole city.

City officials, in developing their comparison figures, reduced the expected diversion rate but not the fees that would be paid. If the diversion rate from curbside collection were only 7 percent (as the city has estimated for 1994), the city would pay $7.7 million in fees, not the $30 million it has repeatedly claimed (ignoring repeated testimony by the CRC explaining the mistake). This deliberate error overstates the recycling fee costs for the first decade by $111 million.

Also, the original CRC/Hansen proposal assumed that the recycling fees would cover costs of providing recycling bins and also of market development. But the city’s comparison figures drawn from that proposal tack on additional costs to cover the bins and market development. Just these two erroneous charges alone inflate costs for the decade by $11.5 million.

Finally, the Chicago Recycling Coalition argues that as recycling grows the city can save money by replacing its compactor garbage trucks with recycling trucks. Recycling trucks typically cost about $65,000 each, compactor trucks about $110,000. Recycling trucks also use much less fuel than compactor trucks. The city insists that since both kinds of trucks would have to cover the same routes there would be minimal (5 to 10 percent) or no savings. The CRC estimates savings that would observe this ratio: whatever the percentage of garbage diverted into recycling (say 30 percent), there could be half as large a reduction in compactor trucks (i.e., 15 percent). The CRC thus calculates a savings of $104 million in collection costs over the first seven years–a savings the city refuses to recognize.

Could the city actually save on regular garbage collection? Not much at first, perhaps. But some municipalities do see immediate reductions: when Oak Park started recycling, it promptly cut its garbage fleet by one-sixth; Naperville received credits with its private garbage collector for costs it reduced through recycling. Even big cities like Miami have found that they could reduce the number of expensive compactor trucks.

In the most comprehensive national study of recycling, highlighting cities that are now recycling “beyond 40 percent” of their waste stream, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance observed that recycling looks at first like simply an additional cost. But the study concluded that “when materials recovery programs achieve levels above 50 percent, they are no longer simply add-ons to conventional waste handling systems. At that point recycling/composting costs are offset by the reduced costs of conventional collection.”

The balance swings further in the direction of recycling as the range of materials collected broadens. Indeed, Barry Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems recommended such a strategy to reduce the current high cost per ton of New York City’s fledgling recycling program.

Eventually, recycling and composting could become the dominant forms of waste management, with mixed-garbage disposal accounting for a small fraction. But Streets and San refuses to contemplate the potential for this complete inversion of the current system and the cost savings that would come with it.

What’s the bottom line? There’s strong evidence that the city’s blue-bag/mixed-waste plan–whose main purported virtue is its low cost–will actually be more expensive than source-separated recycling.

For any recycling plan to succeed, people must be motivated to make it work. If waste is a social problem, as Anne Scheinberg argued, then the solution is social. The city assumes that only better-educated, higher-income, and environmentally conscious people will make a big effort to recycle, while poor people won’t, either because they’re preoccupied with more pressing matters or too unaware or irresponsible.

Most evidence from other cities does suggest that poor people are less likely to recycle than upper-middle-income people. But income level isn’t destiny; poor people will recycle if efforts are made to involve them. Certainly the poor in many cities with good programs recycle at rates higher than those of the well-to-do in cities like Chicago with no systematic recycling programs. The evidence may also be incomplete: in general more-affluent communities have had greater opportunities to recycle.

In Chicago’s four-ward curbside recycling test in 1989, the wealthiest of the wards did show the highest rate of participation, and the poorest ward the lowest rate. But the Seventh Ward–a low-to-moderate-income south-side community that’s predominantly black–had a significantly higher participation rate than the more affluent, largely white southwest-side 12th Ward.

Also, preliminary evidence suggests that in both the 7th and the affluent northwest-side 41st Ward, more households participated in the 1989 recycling test with bins than in the ’91 blue-bag test. In Houston, which is testing recycling alternatives, communities provided with reusable bins report more than double the participation in recycling of communities provided with bags.

Bags-versus-bins is hardly the major issue in Chicago’s recycling dispute, although the city focuses on it (arguing that bags are more flexible and convenient). But as the city’s plan is envisioned, the bags have at least one serious drawback: people have to buy them. Champaign-Urbana found that providing free bins to everybody instead of just to anybody who requested them more than doubled participation. Chicago’s own survey showed a large majority of those questioned unwilling to buy the bags. In the end, easy participation seems to be an important motivator, whatever the container.

Even if it’s harder to motivate poor people to recycle, it’s shouldn’t be impossible. Centers that buy recyclables succeed in poor neighborhoods in part because some residents are motivated to collect materials to supplement their low incomes. That’s why experienced recyclers like Ken Dunn argue for a variety of collection systems tailored to different neighborhoods. In New York and Philadelphia nonprofit buy-back centers have been very successful both in encouraging recycling in poor neighborhoods and in creating jobs. On Chicago’s west side, Bethel New Life has been moderately successful with its buy-back center.

Also, there is strong evidence that cities can greatly encourage recycling by charging fees for garbage but providing recycling free. In Chicago, where garbage collection is financed by general tax revenue (unlike water, for example), it would make sense to permit every household one free can of garbage per week but charge a fee for each additional can–and to provide recycling free. This would provide everyone with basic service yet create an economic incentive to recycle. But the city has not seriously considered such an option, whose fee-for-pickup aspect might make it hard to sell politically, and the Solid Waste Management Review Committee deferred it for further study.

The city could also increase participation by fashioning distinct programs for different communities within the city. “You have to have diverse systems, because cities are diverse entities,” argues Neil Seldman, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a nationally recognized consultant on the economic-development potential of recycling. Some neighborhoods might focus on economic opportunities, others on environmental protection.

Ken Dunn argues that involving local people and organizations in the development of recycling plans could be a step toward creating new civic institutions in troubled communities. Kevin Greene of Citizens for a Better Environment recommends forming recycling districts run by local residents. Each ward office of Streets and San could have a constituent assembly to involve local people in designing waste systems that meet local needs. Local people would have a better idea of where to locate drop boxes or buy-back centers than outsiders like Waste Management. They are also likely to have the best ideas on how to involve their neighbors.

Daley administration officials show no sign that they want to involve citizens in solving local problems. Indeed, their blue-bag/mixed-waste system is a logical consequence of an overly centralized bureaucracy: the key idea is to impose one uniform system on the city. But city officials wouldn’t have to be the ones to decide whether to have curbside in one neighborhood or cocollection of blue bags in another. If local communities had a voice in deciding the plans for their own wards, politicians and bureaucrats could be spared this political hot potato. By imposing a uniform inferior system everywhere, the old politics of garbage (and the bureaucracy of garbage) once again triumph over good sense.

The union contracts covering Streets and San workers also constitute an obstacle to recycling because they mandate three workers on every truck. Most recycling trucks don’t need such staffing. But the problem is not just the unions; it’s also lack of imagination in city management. For example, Seldman recommends that the city guarantee that no current garbage drivers or collectors will be laid off, then negotiate productivity bonuses for workers based on recycling levels. This would give workers both security and the motivation to make recycling work. City workers can do the job; in four-fifths of the cities with the nation’s highest recycling rates, Seldman says, municipal workers collect recyclables and waste.

If Chicago insists on going ahead with blue bags and mixed-waste processing, many outside experts suggest that it build just one MRRF and test the system over a period of several years in a handful of wards. It could try having city workers do recycling under revised contracts in other wards. It could take bids for nonprofits somewhere else. Then the city could compare the results. Even small cities like Seattle divided themselves in order to test alternatives. Chicago should not lock itself into a citywide gamble on a very dubious, untried system. If the city wants uniformity, it should stick with the most solidly established alternative–source-separated collection of a wide range of materials. Streets and San managers should tackle the task of transforming their staff into recyclers. The evidence strongly suggests that this alternative is not only environmentally better but actually likely to be cheaper.

Sixty-two percent of Chicago’s solid waste is not even covered by the municipal collection system. But the city’s choices on recycling will greatly influence high-rise residential buildings, commercial establishments, and industry. And creating a civic consciousness about recycling will lead naturally to an awareness of the need to reduce waste, a course of action preferable even to recycling. Alderman Ed Burke has written a bill mandating that all packaging sold in Chicago contain at least 25 percent recycled material or be made of material collected in an effective recycling program. Burke would also require newspapers to use some recycled newsprint. Although far too weak, Burke’s proposed ordinance at least points in the right direction.

If Mayor Daley wanted to be really bold, he would break with the old bury-it-and-burn-it school of garbage disposal and recognize that for environmental and economic reasons Chicago needs to make reduction and recycling its primary methods of waste disposal. Ironically, despite likely initial difficulties, those will be by far the cheaper alternatives in the long run. And if the city government and local enterprises–whether small for-profit businesses or community-based nonprofits–keep control of the city’s waste, they will capture a new resource to create jobs and a stronger municipal tax base.

Instead, the mayor has decided to back a strategy that will almost certainly blow up–financially and politically–within a few years. It’s a strategy that leads down a dangerous path to more incineration and to a reliance on exporting Chicago’s garbage to somebody else’s backyard. It’s a strategy that will make the city captive of large waste corporations and pass up desperately needed economic opportunities. It’s a big gamble, based on dubious data, relying on an unproved technological quick fix rather than informed participation of the city’s residents. As public policy, it’s garbage. But isn’t that what Chicago was built on?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.