City's recycling needs new ideas
Published October 5, 2004, Chicago Tribune

Chicago's recycling system needs to be recycled itself. Check that: It just needs to be trashed.

From the get-go, the city's blue-bag recycling program was likely to be ineffective. Residents
are asked to mix all types of recyclable materials in the bags and put them with the rest of the garbage in alley dumpsters. Sanitation trucks with hydraulic paddles pick up and compress the whole mess and take it to three processing centers. There, the recyclable materials are supposed to be plucked out and set aside, so the materials can be reused.

Problem is, this is largely smoke-and-mirrors recycling. It is a highly inefficient system. Chicago needs to be thinking about emulating what other cities and suburbs do, offering separate containers for different types of recyclables.

Some cities that have attempted the blue-bag system have subsequently abandoned it, says Mike Mitchell, executive director of the Illinois Recycling Association.

According to city figures, about 25 percent of the garbage in the city is recycled. Most folks would hear that and assume it means all that
material is saved to be used in new glass bottles, paper or metal. But the city acknowledges that, in reality, only about 10 percent of the city's garbage is diverted for true recycling. The rest of Chicago's "recycled" garbage goes to landfills.

That is, the recyclables
are used to cover larger unsifted chunks of garbage. The industry calls it "alternative daily cover" and considers it "diversion" rather than "recycling." Covering other garbage may be a useful endeavor, but it is not recycling.

Cities with effective recycling programs, including many Chicago suburbs, ask residents to segregate
materials into two or three categories, such as glass, paper and aluminum. The city picks up the materials, usually in trucks that have separate compartments to keep the materials segregated.

There's a cost advantage--cleaner recyclables can be sold at higher prices. Newsprint is more easily reprocessed if it's clean and dry, rather than soggy or mashed up with broken glass and squished plastic.

Ah, but that only works in neat little burbs like Naperville, Chicago officials say.

Nonsense. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a comparable recycling program that starts with public education on how to best prepare the material for collection. Even the appearance of an orderly system--rather than Chicago's blue bags--can be an incentive for the public to recycle.

But that would be monumentally expensive, Chicago officials say.

It doesn't have to be. Residents could be taught to sort out their recyclables, and not-for-profit organizations could be hired to do the collection. The city also could install recycling centers at several
spots in each ward. Just such a system operated informally in several Chicago neighborhoods until the blue bags arrived and put most of the volunteer recyclers out of business.

The Daley administration has done a tremendous job of making Chicago one of the nation's "greenest" cities--from tree planting to sodding the roofs of some new buildings. But the loyalty to the blue-bag program has been baffling.

 

 

 

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune