Chicago Plans to Switch from Ward-Based to Grid-Based Garbage Collection. Is Privatization Next?

A city garbage truck makes its collection. Changes are coming to Chicago's waste management system.

The cost of waste management in Chicago is a problem that has vexed City Hall for some time, and the new administration is trying to put its mark on waste management (for better or for worse). In July, Mayor Emanuel announced a “managed competition” plan, in which curbside recycling across the city will be divided into six service areas. Now comes word that garbage pickup will soon change.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has decided to risk a City Council rebellion by switching from a ward-by-ward garbage collection system to a grid plan to save $60 million a year. [Aldermen said] said Emanuel is convinced that a grid system would save the city as much as $60 million a year and that he is not prepared to forgo that savings just to keep the City Council happy. Not when he has promised to erase a $635.7 million shortfall without raising taxes.

Instead, the mayor has asked his top allies to find a way to sell the grid system to a City Council determined to maintain control over the housekeeping services that are an alderman’s bread and butter.

“Politically, they’ve decided that any big-ticket item is worth looking at and this is one of them,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader. “We don’t know the plan or whether we can implement it [in time] to get in a full year of savings. But the decision has been made to go down the road and see what a grid would look like. The administration can’t pass up the possibility to try and implement it.”

It is possible the transition to a grid-based system sets the stage for the city to eventually cut many of the public-sector jobs in the Bureau of Sanitation and instead pay a waste-management company to collect the city’s garbage. Last week, the Sun-Times revealed that Rahm Emanuel’s campaign paid for an extensive phone poll to gauge the popularity of both the mayor and some policies he is considering. Among the many questions asked was one on garbage.

The survey asks voters to say whether they would have some concerns, serious concerns or no concerns if Emanuel announces any of these budget cuts when he presents his budget Oct. 15:

◆ “Outsources garbage collection to private firms.”

Coming on the heels of the “managed competition” recycling program announced July 18 in which Waste Management got the contract to collect recyclables in three of the newly-designated zones across the city, these developments appear to show the city’s support for outsourcing waste and recycling. Time will tell if such a move saves the city money, or forgoes long-term revenues like the Daley Administration’s outsourcing of parking meters. It also remains to be seen how accountable private haulers would be to Chicago taxpayers in maintaining services.

Chicago’s struggles with affordable and equitable waste management have been examined in several Roosevelt courses, including SUST 240 Waste this past spring and SUST 210 The Sustainable Future (offered online this summer and both online and downtown this fall). For more information on these or any other of our courses, visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

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