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Bags Versus Bins 

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For the past year residents of 700 homes in a pilot program in Beverly have had the option of putting their recyclable commodities in plastic bins and setting them out at the curb. Streets and San crews pick them up and take them to the Resource Management plant in Chicago Ridge, where they're separated and shipped off for reprocessing. The test area is small and has a civic-minded population, and each month so far the residents have recycled 20 to 30 percent of their garbage. Resource Management is paying the city an average of $40 for each ton of recyclables.

For months city officials have been rejecting calls to expand the pilot to low-density housing citywide, declaring that it's too expensive but refusing to give specifics. After the mayor's Earth Week speech Sadhu Johnston, commissioner of the Department of the Environment, said the pilot would probably be expanded to a few more neighborhoods soon, but it hasn't happened yet.

Many city officials are skeptical about switching from blue bags to bins. "You have to have a way to pay for it--you don't want other services to suffer," says Streets and San spokesman Matt Smith. "And you want to make sure it works." He cites a poll conducted by Chicago Tonight in which 92 percent of respondents said they preferred the Blue Bag program.

In April the Chicago Recycling Coalition issued a report estimating that curbside recycling could be expanded citywide for $5 million to $25 million more a year and concluding that Chicago pays more per ton to recycle than most other major cities. Smith says he hasn't read the entire report but doesn't think it factored in all the start-up costs of a curbside program.

It's hard to say how much more a bin program would cost because it's not clear how much the Blue Bag program has cost--it isn't broken out of the larger waste-disposal budget. City records do show that over the past several years the city has spent $60 million to $70 million a year for management of the MRRFs, the use of private transfer stations, and landfilling fees combined. But the Blue Bag progam is only part of that cost (not the entire cost, as critics and advocates often claim). The city argues that the Blue Bag program is cheaper than curbside pickup because it doesn't require extra crews or special trucks, and national analysts do say labor and vehicle expenses make up as much as 80 percent of the cost of curbside recycling.

Many curbside programs use regular garbage trucks for pickups, but to limit contamination, the trucks can't compact the recyclables as much as trash, so they can't carry as much per load. Because people don't put out recyclables as consistently as they set out trash, curbside crews also typically collect less in an eight-hour shift than garbage crews, and because recyclables tend to weigh less than garbage, they pick up less weight per shift. In New York City recycling crews pick up about six tons per route while garbage crews bring in nearly ten tons.

Streets and San crews aren't bringing in anywhere close to ten tons a load, though that's the capacity of their trucks. According to city records, their loads range from six to eight tons, though it's not clear whether this is the result of inefficiency or of attempts to keep blue bags from breaking. Either way, switching to curbside collection might cost less than the city claims because it could start putting full loads into trucks that are picking up just garbage.

And there are other places to make up the extra cost. Chicago spends more for labor per load than many other municipalities because it uses three-man crews. Other large cities usually have two, suburbs and private haulers one. Some new trucks allow the driver to simply pull up alongside the garbage containers and let the truck do the rest.

Chicago garbage-truck drivers, who make around $29 per hour, are Teamsters, and their contracts don't allow them to handle trash, so they never get out of the driver's seat. Instead two members of the Laborers union, who earn $26 an hour, hop on and off the back. Union and city officials say three-person crews are the most efficient in Chicago's alleys, where trash has to be collected from both sides. Yet on suburban routes single-driver trucks pick up as many as 600 homes per day, while city crews average only about 400--though the trash cans are much closer together.

Lou Phillips, the business manager for Laborers' Local 1001, which includes the sanitation workers, says he'd be happy to see the city convert to curbside recycling as long as it kept city crews on the job. He adds, "I think personally it would work better with separate containers."

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

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