Policy: Throw Out the Blue-Bag Plan | Essay | Chicago Reader

Policy: Throw Out the Blue-Bag Plan 

Memo to City Council: new evidence from Houston and Omaha confirms that Daley's solid-waste program should be trashed.

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Maybe it's too much to expect that facts and reason, not ignorance and political fealty, might guide our esteemed City Council in its deliberations. But we can hope, can't we?

Next week the council votes on a 20-year plan for managing the city's solid waste. It was written by the Department of Streets and Sanitation and approved by the mayor's Solid Waste Management Review Committee in belated compliance with a state law requiring long-term planning for garbage disposal.

The core of the proposal is the so-called blue-bag recycling plan: residents would be asked to place a mixture of their recyclables--glass, metal, plastic, and paper--into blue plastic bags. The bags would be collected by Streets and San on regular garbage routes and tossed in the compactor truck with the rest of the trash. At several Materials Recycling and Recovery Facilities (MRRFs), to be operated and built by Waste Management, Inc., and Ogden Projects, Inc., under contracts now being negotiated, workers would separate the bags from the garbage, then open them and separate the different recyclable materials. Workers would also sort through the remaining garbage both mechanically and by hand to try and retrieve whatever recyclables had made it into the trash.

In a September Reader story I outlined many of the problems with this extremely risky and deeply flawed method. Its drawbacks are particularly apparent when it's compared to the more conventional method of collecting recyclables separated into curbside bins. In all probability: (a) it will cost more; (b) fewer people will participate; (c) the quality, and therefore market value, of the materials collected will be lower; and (d) more recyclables are likely to end up in landfills and incinerators along with the garbage.

Here in Chicago, the only test of this technique was a two-month "demonstration" in two wards, and the results were unimpressive. But there is new evidence from Houston and Omaha, the only two big cities to conduct extensive trials, that adopting the blue-bag proposal would be a big mistake.

Houston ran a test comparing the two methods. A major private-waste firm (Browning-Ferris Industries, Inc.) collected blue bags of mixed recyclables along with the garbage from 19,000 households. The city distributed green plastic bins for curbside collection of separated recyclables to 27,000 other households. Only 30 to 40 percent of the households in the blue-bag program participated in the test, but a full 90 percent of those given green bins participated.

Ed Chen, deputy assistant director for recycling in Houston, explained, "It's extremely important that [the bins are] so convenient. We provide the bins. It makes people aware it's for recycling. They understand what's going on. They don't have to remind themselves to go to the store to buy the bag [which Chicagoans would also have to do]. With the bin approach, if you don't put the bin out and recycle, people will say, 'Hey, you're not for the environment.' It's educational."

After one year Houston canceled the blue-bag program and it's now introducing citywide source-separated recycling.

Daley administration officials--and even some aldermen from poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago--have suggested that the inner-city poor can't be counted on to recycle. "My people can't even get the garbage in the cans," said one ambitious Hispanic politician. But in Houston participation in different neighborhoods ranged from 50 to 95 percent. In one Hispanic neighborhood, Chen said, 60 percent of households recycled with the bins, and in a poor black subdivision, 80 percent of households took part. Thus, the worst participation rate was significantly higher than the average for all neighborhoods with the blue-bag system.

The blue-bag system was also more than twice as expensive as the green-bin program--about $2.50 per household per month for the bags compared with $1 per household for the bins. When expanded to include the entire city, Houston's green-bin program will cost $1.30 per household per month compared to $2 per household for the blue-bag plan.

Houston's curbside plan also yielded much higher quality recyclables, which then sold at a higher price, Chen said. That is especially significant for Chicago, since Houston's blue-bag system did not collect glass. In Chicago broken glass will be a major potential contaminant of paper, metal, and plastic. The quality of recyclables will become a growing concern as more communities recycle and the markets for recyclables become glutted and more competitive.

In Omaha a local waste contractor persuaded officials in late 1990 that they could save big bucks if they collected blue bags of recyclables with garbage and contracted with him to process them and the mixed-waste stream. That contractor went bankrupt in two months. (In Chicago, the city, not the contractor, assumes nearly all the risk.)

Waste Management, the garbage giant based in Oak Brook, then moved in to continue the Omaha blue-bag processing, but it dropped the mixed-waste processing (although it proposes to conduct such processing in Chicago). Waste Management's processing fee was much higher than the earlier contractor's. During their first year the cost of processing the blue bags was about $51 per ton, or about five times higher than what Chicago Streets and San officials claim it will cost here.

But even at that level, Omaha officials said, Waste Management claimed it was losing money. So when the contract was renegotiated recently, the price per ton virtually doubled. Since the terms of the new contract are slightly different, precise comparisons are difficult: by one set of calculations, the processing cost for blue bags is about $101 per ton, perhaps as low as $85 a ton under ideal conditions. By another, the net cost (deducting revenue earned from sale of recyclables) comes to about $115 per ton. In any case, the cost in Omaha is now roughly ten times what Chicago city officials claim it will be here.

(Robert Sink, manager of Omaha's Environmental Quality Control Division, says that the city's contract with the private garbage collector was such that it couldn't be changed to permit source-separated collection. In a little over three years the processing contract will expire, and, Sink says, "There's no guarantee we're going to renew it.")

On top of all this, the blue-bag system in Omaha is diverting only an infinitesimal 2.7 percent of the waste stream to recycling. More damning yet, four drop-off collection boxes, two of which are badly sited and little used, account for nearly 30 percent of that diversion. Only about half of all households participate. By contrast, in cities like Minneapolis and Seattle, which both have curbside collection, nearly 90 percent of households participate and from 25 to 45 percent of solid waste is diverted into recycling, all at costs far below those in Omaha. Houston's green-bin program achieved 15 percent diversion in its first trial year.

Sink said that Omaha has been able to sell its newspaper for top dollar, but only by very aggressively sorting the paper. Overall about one-fifth of all the materials collected couldn't be recycled. This 19 percent "residual" consisted of contaminated material, broken glass, and regular garbage or other "mistakes" tossed in with the recyclables. Most curbside collections have only 1 or 2 percent residuals.

These tests throw up red warning flags to Chicago that the blue-bag program will escalate dramatically in cost and perform poorly. And these comparisons don't convey the full extent of the danger: neither Houston nor Omaha (after the disastrous first few months) attempted the expensive and little-tested mixed-waste sorting Chicago will use in addition to the blue bags. And Omaha collects yard wastes separately from garbage. Chicago is trying to collect yard wastes with garbage even though that has been a proven failure, resulting in large quantities of yard waste entering landfills and incinerators, contrary to state law banning it.

Streets and San continues to push its blue-bag plan, exaggerating its potential and misrepresenting both its record elsewhere and the costs of alternative plans. In recent City Council testimony Commissioner Raymond Cachares claimed Houston simply dropped the blue-bag plan because of "politics" (which Chen says is totally untrue) and that the Sierra Club endorsed Omaha's plan (which the Sierra Club heatedly denies). Even Daniel Eberhard, the compliant chairman of the city's Solid Waste Management Review Committee, admitted he had "serious reservations" about the plan his committee endorsed.

In defense of its blue-bag plan the city has been circulating a graph intended to illustrate the skyrocketing costs of curbside programs. Based on city payments to recyclers, the graph uses distorted figures to show that the cost of privately contracted curbside programs has soared 1,000 percent in four years. Here's how the deception is achieved: When the city first wised up to the financial advantages of recycling, it made token subsidies to some not-for-profit recyclers. Those small payments represent the "costs" for 1986, the first year on the graph. Two years later the city began paying actual operating costs for three different not-for-profit recycling organizations. And this year the city insisted on receiving bids from recyclers based on a cost per household rather than per ton collected (even though paying by the ton provides recyclers with much better performance incentives). This resulted in a higher cost per ton from one of the contractors; another one refused to submit such a bid, but lowered its cost per ton this year. In any case, even the highest fee currently paid to a not-for-profit source-separated recycler is lower than Omaha's blue-bag plan costs for a comparable amount of recycling.

Despite the graph--and despite their usual enthusiastic support for Daley on most issues--the Tribune and the Sun-Times have continued their strong opposition to the blue-bag plan. More gullible were the editors of Crain's Chicago Business, which recently changed its position on the plan from opposition to lukewarm approval.

Council members can still block this unfolding fiasco. They can insist on an extended comparative test of blue bags and source-separated recycling. They can delay approval of any plan until the city presents the full information on the contracts for MRRFs, which are now being negotiated in secret.

Or they can pass a proposed amendment to the solid waste management committee's 20-year plan that would drop the blue-bag plan and instead ask private companies (including not-for-profits) and the Department of Streets and Sanitation to bid on collecting and processing source-separated recyclables, either with curb or alley collection, drop-off boxes, or buy-back centers.

Daley can probably count on most of his loyalists to back him on the plan. For example, Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, who presents himself as an environmentalist, has become the administration's point man in the fight for the blue-bag plan. He continues along the ignominious path he took as Daley's chief apologist for the outrageous Commonwealth Edison franchise, betraying the interests of his own ward and the whole city to serve his political master.

Yet along with usual Daley opponents such as John Steele, Larry Bloom, Joe Moore, Helen Shiller, Toni Preckwinkle, and Jesus Garcia, there are several important members of the Daley bloc who will probably vote against him. Bernie Hansen, Eugene Schulter, Mary Ann Smith, and Ginger Rugai are likely to muster the courage to buck the blue-bag system. Hansen, the council member with the most personal experience in solid-waste issues, has been a steadfast opponent of the blue bags all along. In some cases, aldermen are under considerable pressure from constituents in their wards who now have curbside service and want to keep it.

Rugai's far-southwest-side ward, which includes Beverly, Morgan Park, and Mount Greenwood, already has curbside collection with blue boxes provided by the Resource Center, a not-for-profit under contract with the city. Her constituents are enthusiastic about recycling and curbside collection and strongly opposed to the blue-bag plan. Many see recycling as the alternative to more incinerators, like the one planned for south-suburban Robbins, which her constituents strongly oppose.

"The interest, the concern, the educated awareness of the community is there," says Rugai. "I'd like to see us go forward from blue-box to something more sophisticated. The blue bag would be a step backwards." She was told by her own representatives that the city's blue-bag demonstration last spring was a "disaster," she says, and "I'm concerned about the cost. I think it would be better to have a year's test with one MRRF and various types of recycling programs" than to simply charge ahead with the full city plan.

Several other council members who normally support Daley but are feeling the heat from their communities are wavering, but in the end they may take their orders from the Boss on the fifth floor rather than their constituents or their consciences. "I'll have to talk with Frank [Kruesi, Daley's chief policy aide]," one alderman reportedly said, "and do what he tells me."

The enthusiastic support for source-separated recycling from those citizens who have had the service for the longest time should be an additional signal to the city that it is on the wrong course. Collecting anything along with garbage is extremely risky and difficult, as we've seen from the disastrous collection of yard waste with garbage, so poor it actually violates state law. And the history of the blue bags in Houston and Omaha should be the clincher. If the City Council fails to block the blue-bag plan now, it can count on facing angry voters in a few years demanding to know how it ever could have approved this financial and environmental nightmare.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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