By Ben Joravsky

It’s been more than half a year since the city started its controversial blue bag recycling program, and for all anybody knows the program’s been a colossal waste of time and money. The city says it’s a “wonderful success story” and notes that five million bags have already been collected. But lately officials have refused to release up-to-date information on how much they’ve actually recycled or spent and have barred independent observers from unsupervised visits at sorting centers. Furthermore, there are those who say the number of bags collected won’t tell you a whole lot anyway.

In short, not much has changed since Mayor Daley unveiled the blue bag program six years ago: you either have faith in it or you don’t. “It comes down to trust,” says Mike Quigley, an aide to 44th Ward alderman Bernard Hansen, one of the council’s leading proponents of recycling legislation. “The city has to make sure it’s doing everything it can to ensure the program’s integrity. If people don’t believe in it they won’t participate.”

The program originated after a state law was passed in 1988 requiring municipalities to recycle 25 percent of all garbage by 1995. (Chicago currently recycles about 5 percent of its waste, so it has a long way to go.) In 1990 Mayor Daley appointed a task force of city officials, business leaders, and environmentalists to help the city comply with the law. But at the group’s first meeting, Daley announced that he had decided to implement the blue bag program. What followed were three years of stormy debates. Recycling activists pleaded with the city to adopt a curbside pickup program, similar to ones in Evanston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Workers in those cities collect recyclables separately, so they don’t mingle with the refuse. But Daley contended that curbside service was too expensive, claiming that it would require additional garbage-collection crews and trucks and that it would be more efficient to hire a private company experienced in waste hauling to handle the entire operation. The City Council fell in line, voting to fund the blue bag system. Eventually the city hired Waste Management to run the program, even though many critics believed that the debate hadn’t been adequately resolved.

“We suggested that maybe they could renegotiate their labor contracts so they didn’t have to have three men on recycling crews, like they do on garbage trucks,” says Anne Irving, executive director of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. “The city’s certainly been willing to renegotiate other labor contracts in the move toward privatization. But they had a predisposition against curbside recycling, and so they created arguments to justify their bias.”

Residents now sort newspapers, cans, junk mail, and other recyclables into blue plastic bags (sold for about 30 cents each at many grocery stores), which they toss into their Dumpsters. (The program is only available to households serviced by city garbage crews, which eliminates high-rises and most commercial or business establishments.) City garbage crews then haul the loads to one of four newly constructed sorting centers, where assembly line workers, standing along giant conveyor belts, arrange the goods for recycling. As backup, other workers paw through the general garbage, salvaging any recyclables they find amid the muck. To believe that the program works means believing that the garbage-truck compactors won’t rip or pop open the blue bags and that Waste Management cares enough to make sure that its sorters, paid $6.50 an hour, will adequately sift through all the crud.

For what it’s worth, officials at Waste Management urge residents to have faith. “It’s a great program,” says Avis LaVelle, spokeswoman for Waste Management (and onetime Daley press secretary). “Its beauty is that it can be integrated with the city’s existing garbage-collection system.”

The program certainly has the potential to be profitable for Waste Management. The city is paying $54 million of the $62 million it’s costing to build the four sorting centers. And under the terms of the deal–negotiated for Waste Management by a lawyer named Roger Kiley who went on to become Daley’s chief of staff–the city pays Waste Management $17 for every ton of garbage that comes into its sorting facilities, as well as $35 for every ton it places in landfills. Every year Waste Management can expect to bring in about $55 million: $20 million for sorting the recyclables and $35 million for dumping the garbage. In addition, the company can sell the recyclables.

According to the city, Waste Management has another incentive to recycle. “The contract’s triggered by diversion,” says Ken Davis, spokesman for the city’s Department of Environment. “If we pay a processing fee for 1,000 tons of garbage, we will only pay for landfilling 750 tons. The other 250 tons of waste must be recycled. There’s an incentive to make sure Waste Management gets as much recycling as possible. It becomes a negative deal for them if they don’t recycle.

“The genius of this is that it protects the city from the vagaries of the recycling market. At a time like this, when the market’s down, what’s the city supposed to do with all that paper? It just piles up. Now that’s Waste Management’s problem. And they can keep the paper moving because they know the market better than anyone else–they know where to sell the paper. There’s a genuine benefit in being associated with a large international corporation.”

Irving, however, contends that the generous contract with the city enables Waste Management to profit even when the recycling market is down. “If you have to subsidize the program, why give the subsidy to Waste Management?” says Irving. “Why not spend the money on community groups or not-for-profit recyclers?”

As of June, the program had diverted from landfills about 9 percent, or more than 50,000 tons, of the city’s garbage. According to the city, roughly 25 percent of Chicago’s 745,000 households are participating in the program; the participation rate drops in low-income communities. City officials say most likely that’s because poor people don’t want to spend 30 cents apiece for the bags.

Davis predicts participation rates will rise as the city continues its TV campaign. And he says the program has already saved the city about a million dollars in disposal fees. But he does acknowledge that the program’s been plagued by alley scavengers who rip open the bags looking for aluminum cans and other redeemable goods. “When they don’t tie the bags up it’s easy for the contents to mix with the garbage,” says Davis. “That’s the only major problem so far.”

But copies of city invoices released to the Recycling Coalition reveal that the city refused to pay a processing fee to Waste Management for the program’s first three months. That leads Irving to wonder if those first loads of recyclable goods were contaminated by being mixed with other garbage.

In addition, there have been reports of bitter arguments between city and Waste Management officials over alleged inefficiencies. “City officials were livid about the way the centers were being operated,” says one City Hall insider. “But the administration couldn’t go public because it’s stuck with a seven-year contract, and Daley can’t turn around now and end blue bags–not after all he’s put into it.”

Irving’s attempts to verify how much the program costs and how well it works have been stifled by city officials, who have not released any billing statements since February. “Those billing statements will spell out how much Waste Management is actually recycling and how much this is really costing the taxpayers,” says Irving. “The released the first three months of billing statements, and after I released them to the press they wouldn’t release any more. Now all of my requests are directed to a freedom of information officer, who says she has to consult with a lawyer before they can release the material. I don’t understand. This is public information. What are they hiding?”

Davis says Irving and other activists have exaggerated the program’s problems. “Did we have early disagreements with Waste Management over the sorting facilities? Of course. But that’s to be expected when you’re starting a program up,” says Davis. “I don’t want to get into a spitting match with Anne Irving. I like these people, but I think they’re narrow-minded and they think I’m a corporate flack. All I can say is that we each have our jobs to do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Anne Irving by Randy Tunnell.