The future of Chicago lies in a batch of blue plastic boxes that sit along the sidewalks of Beverly on the far southwest side, Stashed inside is garbage–newspapers, bottles, and cans–waiting to be collected, sorted, and recycled.
It’s all part of a curbside recycling program funded by the city and operated by the not-for-profit Resource Center. Last year the center hauled about 700 tons of Beverly’s garbage, diverting it from burial in one of the city’s four overflowing landfills. The program’s success vindicates environmentalists who have urged for years that recycling go citywide. “A citywide effort will save money in disposal fees, create jobs, and draw businesses back to the city,” says Michele White, a program developer for the Resource Center. “Besides, we have no choice. Our landfills are filling. Recycling is the future.”
Yet the city–particularly the City Council–seems buried in the past. In January the council rejected 44th Ward Alderman Bernard Hansen’s proposal to ban new landfills or incinerators until at least 25 percent of the city’s garbage is being recycled. True, acting mayor Eugene Sawyer has advanced more recycling programs than any of his predecessors, but neither he nor his chief rival, State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, backed Hansen’s proposal. What’s remarkable is that leading politicians–who boast of their political savvy–are stalling a movment with widespread public support.
“Most politicians just don’t understand this issue,” says Mike Quigley, one of Hansen’s legislative aides. “The biggest concern is that it, will mean the end of union garbage-collection jobs, which is not true. I had an aide to a mayoral campaign tell me ‘Ah, recycling. That’s just a lakefront issue.’ he couldn’t be more wrong. This is not a black, white, or Hispanic issue. The south and southwest and west sides produce garbage too.”
“Everybody blames the city because we don’t have citywide recycling, but this problem is bigger than that,” counters Leroy Bannister, Sawyer’s deputy chief operating officer. “This is a sad commentary on our country in general. We are a very rich country, and we find it easy to throw things away as opposed to conserving them. The Tribune criticized the city for not moving on recycling, and then it turns out that, unlike [the Sun-Times], they don’t even recycle their newspaper.”
Ironically, Chicago’s greatest recycling triumph has come in Beverly, a suburblike neighborhood of single-family homes. A majority of voters there backed George Bush for president; judging from the signs in their windows, Daley will win big there in next week’s primary. This is not liberal country.
“The people of Beverly love recycling,” says White. “We have about 50 percent participation, and that was with all the problems we had getting started. When you think about it, you shouldn’t be surprised. Beverly has the right things going for it: single-family homes, lots of educated people, and plenty of community spirit. Beverly wanted the program to work.”
The program began a year ago, when the city agreed to pay the Resource Center $35 for every ton of garbage it diverted from landfill disposal. The center signed a rebate agreement with two community groups–the Beverly Area Planning Association and the Beverly Ridge Homeowners Association–offering them a percentage of the earnings in return for helping promote the program.
“We also got a letter signed by John Halpin and Alderman Michael Sheahan [19th Ward],” says White, referring to the city’s commissioner of streets and sanitation and Beverly’s alderman. “They encouraged residents to participate. That gave us more credibility.”
Nearly 3,500 blue plastic boxes were distributed. Resource Center collectors, driving a fleet of battered and bruised vans and trucks, make the rounds once a week. “The residents leave the blue boxes next to the garbage cans, and our driver collects them,” says Michael Fowler, route supervisor for the Resource Center. “In that way they’re different than city garbage drivers, who don’t make collections but just drive the truck. Anyway, the driver empties the blue box in the back of his truck, separating the glass, papers, and cans. The beauty of the blue box is that it stands out against the snow, or grass, so the driver can see them in winter and summer. They also work effectively in terms of peer pressure. If you have blue boxes up and down the block, it’s pretty hard not to join in.”
The trucks cart the recyclables to the Resource Center’s waste-transfer yard, an abandoned rail yard at 70th Street and Dorchester Avenue. There the waste is dumped into larger bins to be hauled for recycling. “Last month–January–we got $22,000 worth of newspapers,” says Charles Carpenter, the yard supervisor. “And January’s always a slow month.”
At first, the Resource Center had some problems with scavengers–or moochers, as Fowler calls them–who picked through the Beverly blue boxes. “Most people don’t care about moochers,” he says. “They figure as long as it’s recycled, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that we can’t support this program without the diversion credit. And if some moocher steals the newspapers or bottles, we don’t get that diversion. So we let the police know about what was going on. I heard that someone was arrested and, I believe, fined. We don’t have that problem so much anymore.”
Indeed, the Beverly effort was so successful that the Resource Center has expanded into nearby Morgan Park. “We’re a new organization, just getting started in the area, and recycling was an ideal issue to help us organize,” says Sharon Garson-Machowski, who is cochairman of the Southwest Morgan Park Civic Association. “We divided our area into blocks and every block has a captain. The captains went door-to-door handing out the blue boxes.”
It’s too early to judge the success of the Morgan Park effort, but White feels that recycling could become a key to future economic development in Chicago. “The waste is already here. With some planning we might draw recyclers here as well,” says White. “We could have more transfer stations around the city, as well as glass and paper recycling companies. Other industries have left Chicago, but this is one that might move here. That’s where the government has to come in. The huge private companies are not pushing recycling because they don’t see it as a money-making venture. But if we view it as a service industry–if the government pays people to recycle and take what’s recyclable out of the waste stream–more private companies would get involved.”
Many experts estimate that at least 50 percent of Chicago’s waste is recyclable. “Lawn waste and food waste are the easiest to recycle,” says Patrick Barry, recycling chairman of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. “That’s about 25 percent of the waste stream. Then there’re the easily recyclable containers, newspapers, and aluminum cans, and junk mail.”
“Right now the private companies are not getting into recycling in a big way,” says Carpenter. “But that may change. As more companies come out with plastic containers, the glass companies might use the fact that glass containers are recyclable as a marketing tool. We might see advertisements urging us to buy glass-contained beverages because they’re good for the environment.
So far, however, recycling has had only limited appeal to the city’s politicians. “We are committed to recycling, and we are moving as fast as we can to get a recycling ordinance passed,” says Bannister. “But this takes a lot of time, effort, and education. We should not set unrealistic goals. The city of Philadelphia adopted a 50 percent recycling goal for this year, and they had to admit that they would be lucky to reach 20 percent by 1990.”
That’s the way city officials have talked since 1983, when the City Council voted to ban new dumps. In 1985 Mayor Harold Washington appointed a task force to study the issue. In 1986 the task force issued a report calling on the city to recycle 20 percent of its waste stream by the year 2000.
Last January the council extended the landfill ban, but defeated Alderman Hansen’s “recycle first” proposal. “The level of ignorance about recycling is astounding,” says Barry. “Alderman Burt Natarus got up and said ‘We don’t know enough about recycling. We should have the Smithsonian Institution study it because it’s something we don’t know a lot about.’ That got a lot of people upset. Natarus may not know anything about recycling, but there’s a lot of people in Chicago who do. We certainly don’t have to go to Washington to learn anything.”
The council sent Hansen’s proposal to the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, where its future is uncertain. Energy is one of the council’s most lackluster committees. Sawyer’s council allies ousted its previous chairman, Alderman Bobby Rush, and replaced him with Alderman Ed Smith, who has refused to accept the position. Alderman Robert Shaw lobbied for the job, but the council refused to appoint him. Alderman Edward Burke is the acting chairman.
“The committee hearing on Hansen’s proposal was kind of a joke,” says White. “Burke was the only committee member who attended, and after a while he started talking on a telephone. So there we were, testifying in favor of this important proposal that can help shape the city’s future, and no aldermen were even listening.”
Bannister and other city officials testified against Hansen’s proposal, arguing that it was unrealistic. A few weeks later the Department of Streets and Sanitation announced its plans to conduct a curbside program in four wards–the 7th, 12th, 31st, and 41st–using city workers. The dumps, meanwhile, continue to fill.
“I think we will end up with recycling in Chicago, but it takes time, and the delays are so frustrating,” says Hansen aide Mike Quigley. “We have to sell recycling as a dollars-and-cents issue. We can’t get the aldermen to pass it because it’s good for the environment. Most aldermen don’t think about the environment. But they will think about the city’s budget and the fact that landfill costs are going higher all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter why people act, so long as they do the right thing.”