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Awful Truth About Recycling in Chicago 

If you think the Blue Bag program stinks, you should see what happens to the other 75 percent of the city's garbage.

In April Mayor Daley celebrated Earth Week by reviewing the city's environmental accomplishments in a speech at the Daley Center Plaza. The mayor, whose environmentalism was applauded in the issue of Vanity Fair that had just hit the newsstands, told the crowd of about 100 he was proud of Chicago's international reputation for green construction, tree planting, and water conservation. "The city is leading by example--I as mayor can't just get up here and tell you what you should do," he said. "We've shown that our commitment to the environment is good for nature and good for the taxpayers."

Daley didn't say a word about recycling, one of his administration's oldest environmental initiatives and something that's clearly good for nature and the taxpayers. Perhaps that's because recycling in Chicago is an embarrassment.

Critics of the city's recycling efforts usually attack its Blue Bag program, an obvious flop. According to city data compiled by the Chicago Recycling Coalition, last year less than 9 percent of the trash Streets and Sanitation crews picked up was recycled. The figure could have been 30 percent if the city took recycling seriously.

But most Chicagoans can't even participate in the Blue Bag program. Over three quarters of the city's trash is generated by large residential buildings, offices, stores, restaurants, and other nonindustrial businesses, none of which are served by city garbage crews. The city does require the owners of these buildings to develop recycling plans with the private waste haulers that pick up their garbage, but few do--and the city almost never checks. City officials don't have complete numbers, but they estimate that less than 5 percent of the trash from large residential buildings is recycled. They have only a vague idea how much commercial trash is recycled. According to figures from waste haulers, some commercial establishments, such as downtown offices and grocery stores that generate lots of paper and cardboard, consistently recycle half their garbage, but many small and outlying companies don't recycle anything.

Even Daley supporters are mystified by the city's lack of commitment to recycling. Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley, who helped write several of Chicago's recycling laws as an aldermanic aide in the early 90s, says, "It's an enigma--an otherwise great, green mayor being so terrible on recycling."

In the late 70s and early 80s, reports on the hazards of garbage dumps across the nation--the methane gas they produce, the toxic substances they can leak--frightened nearby residents, and governments responded by tightening restrictions. At the same time the nation was producing more garbage and landfills were nearing capacity.

Chicago was generating 2.5 million tons of trash a year, and its primary landfills, on the southeast side, were just about full. People who lived nearby didn't want them to get any bigger, and in 1984 Mayor Harold Washington issued a moratorium on expanding landfills and on opening new ones, leaving just four operating within the city limits. Officials estimated they could be full within six years.

In the face of the looming national crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a "solid waste management hierarchy" that encouraged municipalities to reduce the trash they generated--by, for example, persuading consumers to use dishes instead of paper plates--and to recycle as much as possible. Recycling was seen as a way to conserve natural resources: if a cat-food can is recycled, less ore has to be mined. Of course energy and fuel are used in the recycling process, but it's still more efficient and cheaper to recover metals, paper, glass, and certain plastics from the trash than to extract the raw materials and manufacture the items new.

Recycling programs took off in the late 80s and early 90s, and in Illinois the amount of garbage sent to state landfills dropped for several years even though people were throwing more out. But by 1992 Chicago was recycling only 13 to 19 percent of its commercial garbage and virtually nothing from residences. Today the numbers aren't much more impressive.

To understand how recycling has failed in Chicago you have to understand how these numbers are calculated, because oranges often get mixed with apples. The EPA considers the by-products of manufacturing, mining, construction, medical procedures, and agriculture to be separate waste streams, with separate recycling and disposal regulations, but cities often inflate their recycling statistics, which are usually figured by weight, by including such things as construction debris--mostly concrete, metal, and wood that can be reprocessed and reused. It is important to keep this debris out of landfills, and the Daley administration deserves credit for pushing a tough 2005 ordinance requiring companies working in the city to recycle the stuff. But it's hard to know how well a recycling program is working if the criteria aren't consistent.

So let's stick to what the EPA calls municipal solid waste--regular old residential and business garbage, a stew of packing materials, old appliances, used tires, worn-out clothing, newspapers, food, grass, and leaves. According to the EPA, in 2003 paper made up 35 percent by weight of the nation's municipal solid waste; food 12 percent; yard waste 12 percent; plastics 11; metals 8; rubber, leather, and cloth combined, about 7; wood 6; glass 5; and everything else about 3. People recycled 83 percent of newspaper, 71 percent of cardboard, and 56 percent of office paper, but only 32 percent of junk mail and almost no napkins, milk cartons, or paper cups. Add up the numbers and only about 48 percent of all paper was recycled. That's still a lot more than other materials: 19 percent of glass, 36 percent of metal, and 5 percent of plastics. Another 56 percent of yard waste and 3 percent of food waste were kept out of landfills because they were composted. Altogether, Americans recycled about a quarter of their municipal solid waste.

Every piece of trash that's kept out of a landfill is known as "diverted" waste, but many experts say that when calculating totals recycling should be defined more narrowly, so as to include nothing but "commodities"--paper, plastic, glass, and metal, the things that usually come to mind when people think of recycling and the things that happen to be the easiest and most profitable to recycle. They want to exclude, say, yard waste because the amounts vary widely over the year, and including it makes month-by-month and city-by-city comparisons difficult. In the summer months, when yard waste makes up a bigger share of trash, some Chicago suburbs say they're recycling 45 percent of their garbage; more accurately, they're diverting 45 percent. Chicago's official recycling numbers are especially confusing: sometimes they include just commodities, sometimes they also include construction debris, and sometimes they really refer to diverted waste.

One reason Chicago's recycling effort stalled is that the landfill crisis never materialized here, because private waste haulers opened new dumps in west-suburban Geneva and downstate Pontiac and Dixon, as well as Wisconsin and Indiana. By the end of 2004 Illinois had 51. Ten of them were in the nine-county Chicago area, though none in the city itself, and at the end of this year the region will have eight. But there's still room: in 2004 state landfills had space for nearly 300 million more tons of garbage, and plans are in place to expand at least some of them. Also the price of landfilling in the Chicago area never rose as dramatically as experts predicted 20 years ago, when it cost $20 a ton; today it's $35 to $50 a ton, not much higher when you factor in inflation.

With few incentives to reduce waste, people are producing more garbage than ever. In 2004 the state produced 24 million tons (that number includes construction debris), up 75 percent from a decade earlier. Of that amount, Chicago accounted for nearly 9 million tons, up 248 percent since the mid-80s.

It's not that the problems with landfilling have gone away. True, new dumps have to be lined with several feet of clay and layers of plastic to prevent leaks, and the methane they produce is often captured and converted to electricity. But environmentalists warn that the linings aren't foolproof, and landfills are still basically forever--even biodegradable materials can take decades to decompose when they're compacted and buried.

It's not that landfilling is cheap. In fact, the price of diesel fuel has doubled since the end of 2003, and the long hauls--much of Chicago's trash now ends up in Pontiac, nearly 100 miles away--drive up labor and maintenance costs. And it's not that there isn't money to be saved. According to Karen Rozmus, Oak Park's solid-waste manager, her village saved nearly a quarter of a million dollars last year by recycling about a third of its garbage.

Chicago officials point out that waste management in Chicago is more complicated than in most places because its housing stock is unusually diverse. So let's look at how the city handles recycling for each of its three streams of municipal solid waste.

First let's take what are known as low-density residential properties--homes and apartment buildings with four or fewer units, plus public buildings such as schools--because it's easier to understand everything else if you understand them. In 2003, the last year for which the city has detailed figures, these buildings generated 1.2 million tons of trash, or just under 24 percent of the 5.1 million total tons of municipal solid waste. This is the garbage picked up by Streets and San (a service that cost taxpayers at least $165 million last year). These are the residents who, if they choose, can participate in the notorious Blue Bag program.

In 1987, at the height of the concern over landfills, Mayor Harold Washington announced plans for a pilot recycling program for low-density buildings in ten wards. Owners would separate recyclables from the rest of their trash and put them out in blue plastic bins, which would be picked up by private companies hired by the city. If the program proved successful it would be expanded to the other 40 wards within two years.

But then Washington died, and his successor, Eugene Sawyer, didn't have the clout to sell the plan to the City Council. Mayor Daley was elected in the spring of 1989 and within six months launched a similar pilot program--though it was only in four wards, and pickups were handled by Streets and San.

The federal government has never set even basic standards for recycling, so many states and municipalities have wound up setting their own. In 1988 the Illinois legislature passed the Solid Waste Planning and Recycling Act, requiring Chicago and every county government in the state to develop a plan for recycling at least a quarter of their trash by 1996. But they only had to have a plan, and there was no penalty if they didn't meet the target. In 1990 the City Council responded by passing the Chicago Recycling Opportunities Act, mandating that the city offer recycling within three years to all 700,000 of the city's low-density buildings. Sponsored by 44th Ward alderman Bernard Hansen and written by Mike Quigley, the ordinance didn't specify how recyclables were to be collected or how much had to be recycled, and it made participation voluntary.

Later that year Mayor Daley announced that recycling would be offered to all low-density buildings inside a year--but through the Blue Bag program, which he promised would be "extremely convenient, environmentally sound, and the least expensive method to administer." City officials said it would cost about $13 million a year, plus start-up costs of $28 million to build four Materials Recycling and Recovery Facilities, where Streets and San trucks would dump their loads for sorting. The city would hire a private company to run the MRRFs (usually called "murfs"), and that company's workers would pull out the blue bags and any recyclable commodities they happened to see as the trash moved along conveyor belts. Other workers would take the recyclables to processors and haul the remaining trash in semis to private landfills, and the company would get to keep whatever money it made selling the commodities. Daley was apparently convinced this approach would work on the recommendation of officials with garbage giant Waste Management, which was then running a blue bag program in Omaha, Nebraska. (The mayor's brother, Bill Daley, was on the board of one of the company's subsidiaries.)

In October 1993 Mayor Daley announced that Waste Management had won the contract to build and run the MRRFs with a goal of diverting a minimum of 25 percent of the trash it picked up. He also announced that the costs of building the MRRFs--three on city property, one on Waste Management land--had more than doubled, to $60 million.

The Blue Bag program started citywide in December 1995, supervised by the Department of Environment. A year later the city claimed 12 percent of the trash it picked up was being recycled, which seems like a respectable figure for a new program--Calvin Tigchelaar, president of the Chicago Ridge-based Resource Management, which collects and processes recyclables from dozens of communities in the midwest, says recyclable commodities make up about a third of municipal solid waste. But the city's own data show that the 12 percent figure was the total diverted--and half of it was liquid that simply evaporated from the trash. Other cities don't include evaporated liquid in their calculations, and three industry officials burst out laughing when they heard that Chicago counted it.

The story was much the same over the next several years. In early 1997 residents of low-density buildings were encouraged to start blue bagging their yard waste with the understanding that Waste Management's MRRF workers would pull it out of the trash and send it to composting companies. City officials included that waste in their new recycling rates and within a year were claiming a rate of 20 percent. Soon they were regularly announcing figures of between 25 and 30 percent, though yard waste was up to 20 percent of the total.

Yet the recycling rate for commodities has topped 10 percent only a few times since the Blue Bag program started. The peak was in December 1999: 10.3 percent. The number of people participating in the program keeps dropping, and almost no one in the city's black and Latino neighborhoods recycles.

Waste Management's contract was up at the end of 2002, and the city put the deal up for bid. Allied Waste won the new contract, worth more than $128 million over three years. (Among the lobbyists Allied employed were a former Daley aide and Daniel Katalinic, who would plead guilty to mail fraud in 2005 because he'd helped trade city jobs for political favors when he worked for Streets and San and after he retired.) Waste Management did get a consolation prize: it wound up owning the taxpayer-financed MRRF on its property.

Many problems with the Blue Bag program under Allied Waste--including spreading uncomposted yard waste on farmland in Indiana--have been well documented. Less well-known is that if Allied doesn't recycle at least 10 percent of commodities it's supposed to pay a penalty. It's hit that minimum only a few times, yet the city hasn't gotten a dime. In 2005 Allied reported it had recycled 9 percent of commodities, but that figure applies only to the two-thirds of the waste that went through the MRRFs; it's not clear what the rate was for the remaining third, which went through private facilities. At the end of the year the city responded to Allied's performance by renewing its contract for two more years.

Daley has repeatedly said that people just need to be educated about the Blue Bag program's merits. This past winter his press secretary, Jackie Heard, said the ten-year-old program was merely off to a "slow start."

If the Blue Bag program is off to a slow start, recycling of commodities from the other two streams that make up Chicago's municipal solid waste has never been much more than a concept on paper, even though high-density residential buildings produced around 2 million tons of trash in 2003 and businesses around 1.9 million--or over 75 percent of the total.

Building owners can choose from the dozens of private waste haulers licensed to operate in the city. These companies set their own containers in alleys and send their own trucks to empty them at least once a week. The garbage goes to more than 60 private waste transfer stations--giant warehouses in the city and suburbs that are the equivalent of the MRRFs. Here the garbage is usually dumped on the floor and spread out; as a condition of their operating license, the owners of the transfer stations in the city are supposed to have workers wade through the trash, pulling out blue bags and any other recyclables they spot. The remaining trash is then trucked to landfills. Some of the biggest companies, including Waste Management and Allied, have their own trucks, transfer stations, and landfills. Smaller firms often contract with the big ones to landfill the trash they pick up.

During the landfill scare of the 80s neither the city nor the environmentalists lobbying for recycling paid much attention to the high-density and commercial waste streams. When the state passed the recycling act in 1988 a handful of aldermen began discussing them, but proposals mandating recycling across the city and setting specific goals failed to win support.

In 1993 Bernard Hansen and 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke teamed up to pass the Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Ordinance, also drafted by Mike Quigley. The Burke-Hansen ordinance, as it's commonly known, requires apartments, condos, and businesses to work with their waste haulers to create a recycling plan and to educate their residents on participating. (They can set up one of several plans--put out Dumpsters for recyclables only, have residents sort commodities into bins, or even have residents fill blue bags and put them in the regular trash.) It sets a goal of diverting 30 percent of commercial waste from landfills and 12 percent of high-density residential waste, and neither figure can include construction debris. But there's no penalty for not meeting either target. Retailers, offices, restaurants, and other businesses are required to do a little more: whenever they apply for or renew their business license they're supposed to submit a statement guaranteeing that they'll recycle at least something. But a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Licensing says the only businesses the city now asks to submit a recycling statement are junkyards, wrecking facilities, waste haulers, and recycling centers.

The city is supposed to make sure building owners have a plan to reduce waste and recycle at least two kinds of commodities. If they don't, the city can issue warnings, impose fines of $100 a day on residential buildings, or take away the business license of retailers and offices. But according to Streets and San spokesman Matt Smith, the city didn't inspect high-density or commercial buildings to see if they had working plans until October 2004. Last year it inspected 2,900 but didn't impose a single fine. He says the inspections consisted primarily of educating building owners and managers about their obligations. "We want people to recycle and are willing to work with them so that they end up doing it," he says. "We don't believe that beating them up with tickets is the way to accomplish this."

A survey of a couple dozen apartment managers across the city this spring turned up not one who'd even heard of the ordinance. Jerome Cusson, who's owned and managed a ten-unit apartment building on the northwest side for 28 years, said he didn't know he was supposed to have a plan. He said his tenants had never mentioned recycling to him and no city inspector had ever asked about a plan. He did say some renters put recyclables into blue bags and threw them into the building's Dumpsters.

Private waste haulers have little incentive to fish out those blue bags or stray recyclables unless they can make more selling the materials than it will cost them in labor. Industry experts say that's possible only if transfer stations are equipped with sophisticated sorting and processing machines. Few are. City officials regularly inspect the transfer stations, but an official with a leading waste-collection company says he's never heard of any blue bags being sorted out.

The reality is that most commodities thrown out by apartment and condo residents are landfilled. From July 2004 through June 2005, the last 12 months for which high-density-residential figures are available, private waste-collection firms recycled 70,000 tons of paper, plastic, glass, and metal from the two million tons of trash they picked up--or 3.5 percent. Streets and San's Smith says the amount could actually be higher, because it doesn't include figures from waste haulers that pick up just recyclables.

By many estimates, recycling by commercial clients has been more successful--many businesses have set up paper-recycling programs--but again the numbers are fuzzy. According to documents waste haulers filed with the city for 2005, they recycled 10 to 40 percent of garbage from high-density residences and commercial businesses (which they frequently lump together)--but those rates often included construction debris. Smith says the citywide commercial rate is around 50 percent, but that figure too includes construction debris. He doesn't know what the separate commodities rate is.

Even if you include debris, Chicago's commercial rate still seems lower than it could be. According to a recent survey by Waste News, New York City and Los Angeles, which include debris in their commercial figures, have recycling rates of around 75 percent.

Michael Cornicelli, director of government affairs for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, says the owners and operators of office buildings know they're supposed to offer recycling, but he doesn't know how many actually do. "We do our best to remind people of their obligations," he says. "But I'll be honest with you, I have heard very few reports of enforcement efforts--or lack of enforcement. It's just not very much of an issue. Our experience with those requirements is that the city is very realistic about what they expect from the private sector."

Quigley is dismayed that the Burke-Hansen ordinance has achieved so little. He says legislation alone can't change the priorities of citizens--they have to want to recycle. But he also blames the Daley administration. "They didn't want to alienate anyone. My response was, you enforce fire and safety codes," he says. "I don't think it needed to be tougher. It needed to be enforced."

Every five years, according to the state's Solid Waste Planning and Recycling Act, city officials must generate a solid-waste management plan. They're required to map out specific strategies for reducing waste and for increasing recycling, list up-to-date figures on landfill space and costs, detail the composition and quantity of the city's garbage, and present goals for handling waste over the next 20 years. Chicago's last plan was finished in 1997. City officials say the 2002 plan isn't ready yet.

But then the 1997 plan wasn't entirely helpful. It estimated that the city's total waste stream would rise to 3.8 million tons by 2010, and it's already nearly 9 million. Among the goals it listed was enforcing the Burke-Hansen ordinance.

Another goal was building the market for recyclable commodities. "As far as I'm concerned, any type of recycling is good, and the more the better," says Hansen, who retired in 2002. "But you have to close the loop--you have to be able to pick it up, refine it, sell the products. You have to create the atmosphere." Developing the market could have a powerful economic impact. A 2001 report by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs estimated that the state's recycling industries employed 49,000 people and generated almost $12 billion in annual revenue.

The city's 1990 Recycling Opportunities Act puts some of the responsibility for creating that market on the Department of Planning and Development. It's supposed to help start-up companies that provide recycling services or use recycled materials and to encourage existing companies to move to Chicago. It's also supposed to summarize these efforts in a report delivered every year to the mayor and City Council. But a department spokesperson wasn't aware of any development or recruiting effort or of any annual reports.

The act also says the Department of Environment is supposed to maintain a list of companies that buy recycled commodities. Streets and San's Matt Smith says neither his department nor the environment department keeps such a list.

The Recycled Product Procurement ordinance, passed in 1994, encourages the city to buy and use recycled products. Mayor Daley can legitimately boast about the city's green building efforts and its use of recycled materials when repairing roads. "This is an example of the way the city can model environmental practices for the public sector," he said during his Earth Week speech. The city's fleet of trucks now runs with the help of reprocessed motor oil, and it buys office paper and even traffic cones made from recycled materials.

Still, no one has set clear guidelines to help departments decide when and how to buy recycled products. Doug Yerkes, an environmental engineer who oversees green initiatives for the Department of Procurement Services, says even his department doesn't have guidelines--that's a goal for next year. He points out that the city does have an aggressive recycling program in its offices. "You can hardly walk down the hallway here without running into a blue bin," he says.

Another goal listed in the 1997 plan was promoting recycling across the city. During the first years of the Blue Bag program the city handed out free bags along with flyers explaining how to participate and thanking people for recycling. In 1994 a public relations firm, Jasculca/Terman and Associates, was hired to do a Blue Bag media blitz, and over the following few years the city paid it at least $2.5 million. The city even made an effort to tell people about the Burke-Hansen ordinance, offering tip sheets to high-density-building managers on starting programs. But in the late 90s the promotional effort dropped off.

Most observers say it's no coincidence that promotion dipped again in 2003 when Streets and San took over the city's recycling initiatives from the environment department. City officials say it's more efficient for the same department to handle trash collection and recycling. "We're out in every alley of the city and dispose of Chicago's waste on a daily basis," says Smith. But Quigley sees it as one more sign of the city's lack of commitment to recycling: "They were thinking, we're dealing with garbage, waste, rather than a potential resource."

In 2004 the city awarded MK Communications a no-bid contract, worth $1.2 million to date, to promote environmental programs in general. President Marilyn Katz says her company has been trying to encourage a "culture of recycling." Its efforts toward that end have consisted of publicizing new battery and electronic-equipment recycling programs, asking people to bring Christmas trees to recycling drop-off sites in exchange for a year's supply of blue bags, and distributing blue bags and recycling brochures at farmers' markets. "We've got to do this in baby steps," she says.

In April the Economist hailed Mayor Daley as a "convinced environmentalist" and applauded the city for providing "all sorts of incentives to encourage acts of greenery." It does provide incentives--just not when it comes to recycling. Add up the low-density, the high-density, and the commercial portions of the municipal solid-waste stream, and we're probably recycling no more than 5 to 10 percent of the most easily recycled things Chicagoans toss in the trash.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, Jim Newberry.

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