Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Privatize Recycling? It's Pretty Much Already Been Done

Posted By on 06.16.10 at 04:31 PM

The Sun-Times's Fran Spielman reported Wednesday something that's been rumbling around City Hall for some time: the city may move to privatize curbside recycling because it doesn't have the money to expand its blue cart program citywide.

By "some time" I mean 23 years. It was 1987 when Harold Washington first proposed enlisting private firms to pick up recyclable materials from the 700,000 homes served by city garbage crews.

Washington died before implementing the plan, and in 1989 the new mayor, Richard M. Daley, ditched the idea in favor of a four-ward pilot program that used Streets & San employees to collect recyclables instead.

But within a couple of years he'd ditched that plan too, opting instead for the blue bag program conceived by his friends at the private firm Waste Management. As luck would have it, Waste Management was subsequently hired to fish the blue bags and recyclables out of the trash at a cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars a year.

We know how the blue bag program turned out. So now Mayor Daley is apparently circling back to Mayor Washington's original proposal.

Unions and aldermen are reportedly astir over the plan to privatize curbside recycling, and for obvious reasons. Let's hope they've learned a lesson from the secretive way the city has undertaken privatization over the last few years—from airport security to the parking meters—and that they demand details and transparency this time around.

But "privatizing" the blue cart program really only means that private firms would provide the carts and pick up the recyclables. The rest is already in private hands.

Currently city employees driving city trucks collect the materials every couple weeks. Then they take it to a city-owned garbage sorting facility whose operations have already been outsourced to a private firm, Allied Waste. (Incidentally, the city has been trying to find private firms interested in a long-term lease of its sorting facilities.)

There the materials are loaded onto trucks owned by another private company, Resource Management, and transported to its state-of-the-art sorting center in Chicago Ridge, where they're processed and eventually sent off to other private companies that use the materials to manufacture other products.

Frankly, if the city can't afford to pay for the personnel and equipment needed to provide recycling citywide, it doesn't make sense not to look into Mayor Washington's old idea.

But that's a big "if." It's never been made clear to me exactly why the blue cart program costs as much as the city says it does. The more that's recycled, the less that goes into the trash. So as the city invests in a recycling program it should save on its garbage disposal costs. And that's how it's worked so far. Since 2007 the city's garbage and recycling budget has shrunk from $157 million to $139 million, largely because of personnel cuts but also because of reduced expenses in garbage disposal. But city officials say they're too broke to invest in recycling right now.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the debate over how to expand the blue cart program is important but not broad enough. About 80 percent of Chicago's waste is generated from homes and businesses that don't get city sanitation services. Last year Daley administration officials met with environmental advocates, waste haulers, and other stakeholders to try to come up with a comprehensive plan for multi-unit and business recycling, but the talks stalled months ago and there are no indications that they'll be revived soon.

Money is tight, but not all of this is about money.

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