Evaluating Chicago’s Recycling Services on America Recycles Day

Today is America Recycles Day, a day when Americans across the country join together to encourage diverting materials from the waste stream through recycling efforts. Click the link above to find an event near you.

Today is an opportune time to evaluate the promises about recycling made by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel since he took office in May of 2011. When the new mayor took office, Chicago’s recycling program was the source of some embarrassment to outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley. Despite spending millions of dollars of public money since the mid-1990s, the city’s blue bag program had failed to reduce contamination or educate the public on correct sorting of recyclables. During Mayor Daley’s final term, the blue bags were scrapped in favor of a blue bin program, but costs prevented the city from giving blue bins to more than a small fraction of single-family households. (And the bins did not affect residents of large multi-family dwellings, who were ostensibly guaranteed private recycling services by the Burke-Hansen ordinance, an ordinance that has never been enforced by the city.) By the time Mayor Daley left office, the city’s rate of recycling wastes (except for construction and demolition wastes) was mired in the single digits. During Mayor Daley’s final year in office, the Chicago Reader‘s Mick Dumke recounted the long, troubled history of municipal recycling services in the city under the headline “Why Can’t Chicago Recycle?”

When Mayor Emanuel took office, he promised that things would be different. During his campaign, he responded to a question about Chicago’s lack of recycling with the following answer:

“I will enforce the City’s solid waste recycling ordinance.

Improving and expanding curbside recycling is a top priority of mine. Picking up garbage in Chicago is too expensive and inefficient and must be reformed. Recycling has to be part of a comprehensive plan to overhaul the City’s garbage collection system, particularly in light of the massive deficits in the City’s budget. I am committed to making this a long-term project so that all Chicago residents have access to curbside recycling, but the time frame for implementing the expansion will have to be determined based upon the availability of revenue and in the context of the City’s budget crisis.”

Two months into his term, Mayor Emanuel unveiled the first step in attempting to provide all Chicago residents with access to curbside recycling, announcing an expansion of blue carts to 20,000 additional households by November of 2011, with further expansion to come. To offset costs, collection from the blue carts would come from dividing the city up into six collection areas, with the massive private vendor Waste Management (previously the city’s partner in the failed blue bag program) collecting from three areas, Midwest Metal Management (a division of Sims) collecting from two areas, and the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation collecting from one area.

The idea was that the three entities were participating in a “managed competition” program, and the goal of the program was to reduce the high costs of recycling. The competition would take place for six months (starting in November 2011), and the city would assess its results as it moved to expand recycling services.

In April of 2012, the city announced that the competition had reduced the costs of the recycling program. The city claimed that blue cart collection had cost the city $4.77 for every blue cart collected before the managed competition program, and those costs were lowered to $3.28 per bin in the area collected by the Department of Streets and Sanitation and to $2.70 a cart in the areas collected by the private vendors. Mayor Emanuel also promised to complete the rollout of blue bins to single-family dwellings by the end of 2014. (No specifics were given about how to improve recycling services in large buildings.)

The city did not disclose how it came up with these figures, nor did it disclose the percentages of material being diverted from the waste stream. Since the private vendors could keep any revenue generated by selling the recyclables on secondary commodity markets, the potential loss of revenue in those areas would be important for assessing the real costs of the program.

I sit on the board of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, an environmental advocacy group concerned about the lack of effective recycling in Chicago. In April of 2012, officials from the city met with the Chicago Recycling Coalition and promised to provide more detailed data to the CRC by the end of June so the public could assess the effectiveness of the program in both reducing costs and diverting materials from the waste stream.

Today, America Recycles Day, is November 15, 2012. The City of Chicago has yet to disclose how it arrived at its claims in April of 2012, nor has it released specifics on how it will expand blue bins across the city over the next 25 months. The public has no idea if the city’s recycling rate has risen out of the single digits. The public also does not know how or when recycling services in large buildings will be a civic expectation rather than a privilege. Updating Mick Dumke’s 2010 story on Chicago’s recycling failures would be an illuminating exercise. Have the changes Mayor Emanuel’s administration has made improved the city’s collection and sale of recyclable materials? Have education efforts improved Chicagoans’ ability to recycle? What will be the long-term details of the private-public partnerships on recycling services? What metrics is the City of Chicago using to assess the effectiveness of the managed competition? What is the current recycling rate (excluding construction and demolition wastes)? Is it still in the single digits, or has it improved?

Answers to those questions will tell us much about how effective Chicago’s recycling program is now, and how effective it is likely to be in the future. I hope those answers arrive before the next mayoral election in 2015.

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