To improve recycling, will Chicago turn to privatization?

Mayor Daley has proposed the idea of privatization, after Chicago's own 'blue bag' recycling program flopped. But the next mayor may be the one to decide.

By , Staff writer

In his six terms in office, Mayor Richard M. Daley planted trees on parkways and flowers on traffic medians, launched a plan to cut the city's carbon emissions, and encouraged rooftop gardens, starting with one atop City Hall.

But his green portfolio, critics say, is missing a major piece: a successful recycling program. According to city data, only 8 percent of Chicagoans' waste is being recycled annually. The two largest US cities, New York and Los Angeles, recycle 12 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

"This is one of the inexplicable failures of the Daley administration," says Mike Nowak of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, an environmental advocacy group.

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Chicago's recycling woes date back to a 1995 program in which recyclables, stowed in blue plastic bags that residents had to buy at stores, were collected along with everyday garbage. Cramming both together on the sanitation truck often led to bags breaking open, contaminating the recyclables and making them unfit for a recycling plant.

Worse, the blue bags often were never collected at all. In 2008, the city shuttered the program, replacing it with curbside pickup of common recyclables. But the free pickup is available to only 241,000 of Chicago's 600,000 households and the city, $654 million in debt, says there is no money to expand the program in the near future.

The city has augmented curbside pickup by establishing 36 drop-off points, but Alderman Joe Moore says that doesn't help residents without cars who can't be counted on to haul bags of bottles, cans, and newspapers on a bus or train.

According to Mr. Moore, the Daley administration "lost an opportunity to make serious recycling fully ingrained in the psyche of Chicago residents" when "times were good."

Matt Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, says the city stopped expanding its program "when the economy went south" and is "focusing on basic service" until it improves.

Even if Chicago suddenly did have curbside pickup for every home, environmental groups and some officials say residents likely would not participate because the blue bag program was so widely discredited.

"They're cynical about it now," says Mr. Nowak. "People gave up on recycling because they didn't understand what was going on.... Even if we get a system that is effective, we're going to need a whole new education program to inform people that it does work."

In September, Mayor Daley proposed privatizing recycling. Ken Dunn of the Resource Center, a nonprofit that operates private drop-off locations around the city, supports the idea, saying companies contracted to collect recyclables within neighborhoods or wards would help educate residents about how recycling operates.

There are already signs that recycling could become a campaign theme in the race this winter to replace Daley; leading contender Rahm Emanuel is talking about it on his website.

"You need to have a new administration that makes it a priority," Moore says. "Whenever anything in government becomes a priority, they find funding for it."

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