Stockpiled blue carts at a south-side warehouse
Stockpiled blue carts at a south-side warehouse Credit: Mick Dumke

Here’s how recycling in Chicago works now—or, rather, how it doesn’t:

If you live in a residential building with four or fewer units, you’re supposed to put your recyclables into blue carts and set them out by your trash every two weeks—though in some areas pickup has been slowed to once every three weeks, and in most neighborhoods there are no blue carts yet. If you don’t have a blue cart, you can take your recyclables to one of the city’s 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren’t already too full.

If, on the other hand, you live in a building with more than four units, your garbage is picked up by private waste haulers. Your landlord is required by law to offer recycling service, but most don’t and the city rarely enforces that law. If your hauler isn’t recycling, you can press the building owner to comply with the law, but he doesn’t really have to fear being fined for violating it. Or you can take your stuff to one of those 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren’t already too full.

If the place you work recycles, maybe you can haul small amounts of recycling in on your commute. If you live adjacent to a neighborhood that has the blue carts, maybe you can slip your recycling into the ones across the street, if they’re not already too full—but don’t get caught, because it’s illegal. If you live next to a park, or visit the airports regularly, maybe you can take your materials to their plentiful recycling bins.

Or you can do what most Chicagoans do: say to hell with it.

Right now just 8 percent of the waste from the 600,000 homes with city garbage service is being recycled, according to a study commissioned by the city’s Department of Environment. The number is 19 percent for buildings with private service. Based on previous studies and the success of recycling programs in Seattle, the report concludes that the city could readily raise both figures above 40 percent by investing in infrastructure and educating the public. (San Francisco’s current goal, for comparison, is zero waste by 2020.)

“People are really frustrated,” says Mike Nowak, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, an advocacy group. “We’ve got this multitiered system right now, so it’s no wonder people are confused. And it prevents the city from educating people about recycling because there are so many caveats.”

On May 2, 2008, when city officials killed the underperforming blue bag program, they promised to replace it with a new system of curbside pickup—the blue cart program. They also vowed to find new ways to bring recycling to the thousands of businesses and larger residential buildings that were never served by the blue bag program in the first place. “This is a day to celebrate,” Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner for the city’s Department of Environment, said at the time. “We have accomplished much, but we also understand we have a lot of work to do.”

And on September 18 of that year the city reaffirmed its commitment to recycling when it released a road map for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Action Plan, as it’s known, listed waste reduction and recycling as a top priority. “Rapid Blue Cart expansion will help reduce the amount of waste produced, while allowing the waste that is produced to be safely returned to nature,” the plan stated. “Major steps to educate the public about this and other aspects of Chicago’s waste reduction initiative are being planned.”

Two years later, Chicago’s recycling programs are a confusing mess—to residents, recycling advocates, aldermen, and even city employees who work on waste management.

City officials say they don’t have the money to expand the blue cart program and don’t believe a crackdown on businesses and landlords will improve recycling in buildings that use private waste haulers—which, by the way, account for nearly twice as much garbage as the homes served by the city. They say that behind the scenes they’re exploring all sorts of options for reducing waste and increasing recycling.

But political will remains at least as big an obstacle to moving forward, according to several officials in the city’s environment and Streets and Sanitation departments who spoke to me on condition that I not use their names.

The Daley administration is on the defensive, insisting it’s doing all it can in bad economic times but refusing to share information with the public or even members of the City Council. My request for an interview to discuss recycling with Department of Environment or Streets and San policy makers was ignored, but multiple sources told me it was rejected on direct orders from the mayor’s press office. A few questions I e-mailed to the departments were answered with canned responses, though most others were also ignored.

All the unnamed sources in this story said they could be fired for talking to me. But they reached out anyway because they’re frustrated that the mayor and other top city leaders haven’t made recycling a priority—and, worse, that these top leaders have worked hard to keep discussion of it “closed off and away from people,” as one source put it.

In April city officials quietly released the results of a pair of studies they’d commissioned to help them figure out how to reduce the amount of garbage produced in Chicago. One, a “waste characterization study,” sampled trash around the city to determine what Chicagoans are throwing out. It found that we produced about 7.7 million tons of waste in 2007, most of it metals, paper, food and yard waste, plastics, used clothing, and construction and demolition (C & D) debris like concrete and steel.

The other, a “waste diversion study,” analyzed what’s happening to the city’s garbage after it’s picked up. It determined that most C & D debris is recycled and reused—as much as 65 percent, the result of a 2005 city ordinance as well as demand for the materials in the marketplace.

But the study also found that even with the high recycling rate for C & D debris, most of Chicago’s waste ends up in landfills: 56 percent of metals from homes and businesses, 69 percent of discarded paper, 96 percent of food and yard waste, 96 percent of plastics, and almost all clothing.

The study authors, from a consulting and engineering firm called CDM, offered city officials some straightforward recommendations: offer blue carts citywide, provide more opportunities for residents to recycle clothing and compost organic waste, launch education and outreach programs, and start enforcing recycling laws already on the books. (The studies cost $494,250, about half of which was covered by grants, the rest by funds drawn from the city budget.)

But Chicago isn’t close to making these recommendations happen in any comprehensive way.

From 1993 to 1998 the city asked the residents served by its garbage crews—those who live in “low-density” buildings with four or fewer units—to separate their recyclables into blue trash bags and toss them in with the rest of the garbage. Officials said the blue bags would be separated out at state-of-the-art sorting facilities that cost taxpayers $60 million to build, and the recyclables would be delivered to the appropriate firms.

After an initial wave of interest, though, participation dropped rapidly. And while officials claimed for the first several years that the program was keeping as much as 30 percent of the waste from low-density households out of landfills, city data showed that less than 10 percent of commodities like paper, plastic, metal, and glass were recycled. What’s more, that 10 percent only accounted for about 2.4 percent of the city’s total waste stream anyway.

By the time the Daley administration decided to bag blue bags for good in 2008, the program had cost taxpayers more than $200 million, and recycling rates in most of the city were as low as they’d been since the launch of the program.

City officials refused to call it a failure—even in announcing its demise, Streets and San commissioner Michael Picardi said the city had good reasons for sticking with it so long. “That was the state of the art at the time,” he said, while curbside pickup “is state of the art now.”

Picardi said it would take up to three years to expand the blue cart program citywide because the city couldn’t immediately afford all the new employees, trucks, and carts it would need. “It took us five years to roll out the black cart [garbage pickup] program,” he said. “It takes ten months to order a truck. We pick up from 600,000 city residential households. It would be impossible to roll this out to all of them in a year.”

Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward says that was a mistake. “If they’d rolled the program out more quickly, it could have gotten established across the city,” he says. “Instead, it transformed the city into haves and have-nots.”

By incrementally adding wards, then chunks of wards, the city managed to offer the program to about 241,000 households in different parts of the city. But last summer budget officials told administrators they couldn’t hire any more workers, and a halt to the blue cart rollout was made public during City Council budget hearings last fall.

Aldermen whose wards never got carts weren’t happy, and they continue to take heat from constituents who are angry that they’re not getting the same city services as other residents.

“I’m getting letters from kids asking me when they’re getting their blue carts,” says Alderman Scott Waguespack. He’s one of the lucky ones: most of his 32nd Ward has the program. But parts of it don’t.

“People who don’t have blue carts will sit there and say, ‘Come on—this is ridiculous,’ and they look at us, the aldermen, as the ones not capable of pulling it together,” Waguespack says. “And you go into these meetings with the administration people and you’re told, ‘Alderman, we’re trying to do this.’ I try to believe them, but man, how many times do you have to go to the till before you think, ‘I don’t believe a thing you guys are saying to me’?”

“I hear about it every day: ‘Where are our blue carts?'” says Moore, whose ward isn’t yet part of the blue cart program. “What other city service do we have where one-third of the city gets the service and the other two-thirds don’t? It’s almost worse, quite frankly, than not having it anywhere. The city can’t publicize the program anywhere because not everyone has it, so that affects participation in the areas that do have it. It’s a completely half-assed approach to this.”

“There’s been no city leadership on this whatsoever,” continues Moore, who’s been advocating for improved recycling since the 1990s. “Remember that it took years before the city finally coughed up the information showing no one was really recycling under the blue bag program. They don’t want information to get out there.”

Last month Alderman Tom Allen, whose 38th Ward also lacks blue carts, convened a City Council hearing on expanding the program.

At the hearing, says Allen, “my objective was to pursue some answers and put the spotlight back on it and respond to the people in my ward who are angry. When I called for that meeting, other aldermen were eager to sign on. Those wards that don’t have recycling, the public has demanded responses from them. You can’t apportion city services in a way that’s disproportionate.”

The aldermen got to blow off steam, but the meeting didn’t produce much else. Current Streets and San commissioner Tom Byrne, whose department oversees the daily operations of the blue cart program, skipped it. And the aldermen didn’t settle on any specific proposals for funding blue cart expansion, though Allen floated a number of ideas—including dipping into tax increment financing funds, everyone’s new favorite nest egg.

Allen also says the city should consider tapping into unused funds set aside for property tax rebates or beating the bushes for corporate sponsorship. Coca-Cola recently paid for about 1,200 recycling bins in Philadelphia.

Earlier this month the Sun-Times‘s Fran Spielman reported that stacks upon stacks of blue carts—about 22,000—are stored in a warehouse on the far south side. City employees had been shopping the story around because they’re furious that the administration hasn’t moved faster.

City officials told me privately that Streets and San purchased the carts, at about $45 apiece, for the next phase of rolling out the program, but then was ordered last year not to go forward with it.

Streets and San spokesman Matt Smith was more circumspect when he e-mailed me in response to several questions I’d asked him via e-mail and voice mail. “We have been using the carts we have on hand to maintain our current service area,” he wrote.

He added that the new carts would not be distributed to households that aren’t already part of the program. “Yes, large quantities of carts can be a big cost up front. But drivers, laborers, equipment and maintenance are reoccurring costs that will exist and increase over the long haul.”

Experts say recycling should save money over time, because recyclable commodities can be sold for money while municipalities have to pay to bury trash in landfills. Chicago now gets $31-$47 a ton for its recyclables while it costs $26-$35 a ton to landfill—not counting trucking expenses. That’s a difference of $57, at a minimum, for every ton of waste that’s recycled.

But Smith says these figures are too fluid to count on. “The savings you discuss depend upon a number of factors which are not certain,” he wrote. He didn’t respond to questions about the specific costs of trucks, labor, and other program expenses.

Aldermen say they’re still waiting for answers to some of these same questions.

Sources from inside the city tell me officials are considering a number of scenarios to pay for a blue cart expansion. One of them involves shifting Streets and San staff around, or possibly even reorganizing garbage pickup, so more labor is available for recycling collection. But the sources say top city officials are wary of upsetting aldermen, who they fear would resist any plan that lessens their control over everyday services. “Aldermen want to keep the old ward system in place,” one source says.

Another possibility would be turning over recycling collection to a private company. It would almost certainly make the blue cart program more economical—Chicago spends far more on the labor and equipment for its waste management systems than most municipalities. But my sources say top officials have balked because they’re not sure it’s worth a fight with organized labor or the political costs of defending another privatization deal in the City Council, which took a lot of heat for privatizing street parking last year.

The blue cart program is already partially privatized, though. Currently city employees driving city trucks collect recycling every couple weeks, then take it to a city-owned facility whose operations have been outsourced to a private firm, Allied Waste. There materials are loaded onto trucks owned by another private company, Resource Management, and transported to its center in Chicago Ridge, where they’re sorted by type of material and sold to other private companies that use the materials to manufacture other products. (City trucks take a small amount of the recyclables directly to the Resource Management facility.)

And the idea of privatizing curbside recycling pickup predates the parking meter deal, the Skyway deal, and the failed Midway deal. It even predates Mayor Daley’s first term.

It was 1987 when Harold Washington first proposed enlisting private firms to pick up recyclables from homes served by city garbage crews. Washington died before implementing the plan, and in 1989 the new Mayor Daley put the kibosh on it in favor of a four-ward pilot program that used Streets and San employees instead.

Within a couple years he’d ditched that program for the blue bag program, conceived by connections at the private firm Waste Management. Not surprisingly, Waste Management was subsequently hired to fish the blue bags out of the trash, at a cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars a year.

Now Daley is circling back to Washington’s original proposal.

According to the study results released by the city this spring, just 14 percent of the city’s waste is produced by the homes served by city garbage crews. About 61 percent comes from the C & D sector, whose efforts are one of the city’s few recycling success stories.

The other 25 percent comes from businesses and what the city refers to as high-density residential buildings—those with more than four units, for which garbage collection and recycling are already in the private sector.

For the last 20 years recycling in these buildings has been an even lower priority for the Daley administration.

In 1993 the City Council passed the Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Ordinance, better known as the Burke-Hansen ordinance, after the aldermen who sponsored it. It requires that building owners set up recycling for at least three kinds of materials. If they don’t, the city can issue warnings, impose fines of $100 a day, or take away the business licenses of retailers and offices.

In practice, however, the ordinance is almost meaningless, because city officials quickly decided that they didn’t want to alienate property owners and building managers by enforcing it. The city didn’t inspect high-density or commercial buildings to see if they had recycling plans until 2004. Most didn’t, but even then the city didn’t impose any penalties. “We don’t believe that beating them up with tickets is the way to accomplish this,” Matt Smith told me in 2005.

In 2007 and 2008, as pressure mounted on the city to replace blue bags with blue carts for low-density residences, 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller tried to force some movement on business and high-density recycling. Shiller, whose ward includes scores of high-density buildings, argued at the time that Burke-Hansen was ineffective because it didn’t take into account buildings where landlords and tenants might not be able to afford their own recycling programs. “The current ordinance uses the same plan and generalizes the city as a whole,” she said. “We need to measure what people are already doing and get other people involved who want to do it.”

With a nudge from Shiller, city officials asked the U.S. EPA to fund a study of what recycling programs were already under way in high-density buildings in her ward. After a year of tracking garbage generation and recycling at 20 different buildings—some recycled more than a quarter of their trash from the outset, while others struggled to recycle anything—the city Department of Environment and its consultants summarized their findings in a report completed in 2009.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they concluded that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for multiunit buildings—they all have different trash haulers and property managers, different amounts of space to store recyclables, and residents with a wide range of interest and motivation. The report argues that residents, managers, and waste haulers for each building have to work together to come up with a plan. It also emphasizes that nothing is as important as launching an education campaign to let people know how and why to participate.

“Residents must be kept updated on the recycling program or can become discouraged that their recycling efforts are not making a difference,” the report says—a point that critics also made about the blue bag program during its darkest days. “The Project found that buildings should explain their waste and recycling practices, especially to new residents, in multiple ways. In addition to the tools already being used for existing residents (such as posters and container signage), new tenant lease inserts, flyers, or pledge cards help new tenants begin recycling immediately.”

Out of the study came a “tool kit,” subsequently posted on the city’s website, that offers residents and managers concrete steps for how to start a recycling program.

At the same time, the city put together a “recycling task force” made up of aldermen, recycling advocates, waste haulers, and city officials to revise Burke-Hansen. The agenda included issues like what kinds of materials should be required to be recycled, how performance would be monitored, whether there should be different standards for different sizes or types of buildings, and what kinds of incentives should be in place—as well as what kinds of penalties. Shiller predicted that the task force would produce a draft of a new ordinance by the end of last summer.

Instead it imploded. City officials tell me recycling advocates were uncompromising; recycling advocates say the city wouldn’t commit to penalties for reluctant building owners and waste haulers. Burke-Hansen was never rewritten, and it still isn’t enforced. “We prefer the carrot over the stick,” one city official told me.

While the 46th Ward study was under way, top city environmental officials began looking into a citywide solution to the high-density recycling problem. In the summer and fall of 2008 they showed waste haulers, building management groups, and business leaders a proposal to scrap the private hauling system for a new one that shifted power to the city. Rather than each apartment building or commercial property negotiating its own deal with a waste hauler, the city government would divide Chicago into as many as 20 zones and hand out an “exclusive franchise,” through a competitive bidding process, to a single hauler in each. The company operating in each zone would be responsible for picking up and landfilling the trash as well as sorting out and recycling certain reusable materials.

Proponents with the city said the plan was based on successful systems in cities like Portland, Oregon, with far higher recycling rates than Chicago. They said reducing the number of waste haulers in each area would reduce the number of trucks and the number of pickup routes, thereby cutting fuel emissions—as well as the cost of recycling collection. With fewer trucks on the road, taxpayers would spend less on street and alley repairs, and the bidding process would yield lower garbage disposal fees. “Right now there is an unbelievable disparity in the prices and services for customers—for the exact same service right down the street,” Malec-McKenna, the environment commissioner, said at the time. “It’s just price gouging.”

Not surprisingly, the National Solid Wastes Management Association called the proposal garbage. Waste haulers—some of whom would lose out under the city’s plan—argued that Chicago’s thousands of businesses and buildings had unique needs, depending on their location and the type of trash they produced, and simply couldn’t be served by a single hauler (or charged a uniform fee) over a broad area. The trade group even set up a website to counter many of the city’s claims, arguing, among other things, that cities with similar systems paid far more than Chicago for garbage collection and recycling.

The waste haulers are a deep-pocketed and powerful group, and with the backing of several local business groups they managed to kill the idea. City officials told me recently they still think it’s a good one but that it won’t be revived any time soon because there’s no interest in a costly political war with industry and trade groups. “It isn’t worth the effort,” one city official says.

Which leaves high-density recycling right about where it was before any of these conversations started. Shiller says the “tool kit” that came out of the pilot project in her ward has enabled hundreds of residential buildings, mostly on the north lakefront, to develop recycling programs. But most of the waste from high-density buildings across the city is still going into landfills.Thanks in part to the informal recycling economy—e.g., Dumpster scavengers—buildings with private collection are keeping about 75 percent of their aluminum waste out of landfills. But the rates for plastic and food waste are close to zero.

“There was that little experiment in Helen Shiller’s ward that seemed quite promising, and we sort of piggybacked on it, but there was no follow-through,” says Joe Moore, whose 49th Ward also includes a lot of high-density residences. “We had a little success on a volunteer basis . . . especially with condo associations. But my office just doesn’t have the resources to continue that on a regular basis, and volunteers are volunteers.”

Shiller says the high-density push petered out when the blue cart program stalled: “It’s hard to place demands on the private sector when the public sector isn’t moving.”

She predicts that will change in the next few months as the market for recycled materials continues to improve. “Now most waste haulers are offering recycling, and that wasn’t the case before,” she said. “This is not about a lack of intent—everyone wants to do recycling. We’ll figure something out.”

There is some room for optimism on all of this. In lieu of curbside programs or a coherent high-density policy, the city has created 33 recycling drop-off centers that are well used, to the point where they’re often overflowing. In fact, two south-side aldermen recently proposed fining suburbanites who sneak into Chicago to dump their recyclables at city-owned drop-off facilities. From the beginning of the year through the end of May, 1,900 tons of recyclables have been left at the sites, according to Matt Smith.

Recent changes to city and state law have made composting more feasible. The city’s website offers tutorials, even for apartment dwellers, and several new commercial composting ventures are opening on the far south side.

But for many people—even those with a deep interest in recycling—the city’s current web of programs and possibilities is too difficult to navigate.

Two years ago, as the city was phasing out the blue bag program, a family friend asked 42nd Ward resident Dina Demetrio why she wasn’t recycling. “I said, ‘No one in the Gold Coast recycles,'” she says.

She soon learned from friends that plenty of people did—but most of them lived in high-rise buildings with in-house programs. Demetrio, who lives in a single-family home with her husband and two young children, called 311, the city’s information line, and asked how she was supposed to recycle. She was told to put her recyclables into blue bags and set them out with the rest of her garbage.

So she did. She even made special trips to a grocery store she didn’t normally shop at because it sold blue bags. But something bothered her.

“I never saw anybody else using the blue bags,” she says.

There was a good reason for that, of course, but if Demetrio wasn’t up on the news she was also intent on doing her part. She kept blue bagging, but also called “the mayor’s office, my alderman’s office, everybody” to try to find out what was up. She says no one could tell her whether stuff in blue bags was still being recycled. Even the city sanitation crews who came to pick up her trash encouraged her to stick with it, she says, and promised her “we’d be getting the blue carts soon.”

Finally, earlier this month, Demetrio managed to reach someone in the city’s environment department who broke the news to her: no, blue bagged materials haven’t been recycled since late 2008. The employee suggested that Demetrio drive the recyclables to one of the city’s drop-off sites. Since there aren’t any in the Gold Coast, she’d probably want to take them to the South Loop, Lincoln Park, or Old Town.

Demetrio was ticked off. “It’s such a waste,” she says. “This obviously isn’t a priority.”

Yet she remains a believer in recycling, and during her recent conversations with city officials they asked her to volunteer as a “recycling captain” and tell others in her neighborhood how they can recycle. It’s often a hard sell. “What I’ve found is that people have no faith that the city is really going to do it,” she says.

Demetrio maintains that something good has come out of her experiences: “Even though I’m irritated about this,” she says, “my two- and three-year-old children have learned that paper and glass don’t go in the garbage.” Maybe by the time they’re renting their first apartments, Chicago will have a coherent recycling strategy.