Chicago “Managed Competition” Recycling Program Begins Today

Thousands of Blue Carts sit in a Chicago warehouse. Will they, and the thousands more now on order get used soon?

Today marks the beginning of yet another attempt to expand recycling in Chicago.  (The city has provided maps and schedules of the new system here.)  As the Chicago Reader reported last year, Chicago’s recycling program has a very low recycling rate — and the city pays millions of dollars each year to maintain the program.  The new program divides many of the single-family households in Chicago into six zones serviced by two companies and city workers in the hopes of providing more homes with Blue Carts at a lower price to the city.

Within four months, the mayor has promised blue-cart recycling will come to 20,000 additional households in Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square.

Six months into the competition, a cost-benefit analysis will determine how city employees measured up against two private contractors: Waste Management and Midwest Metal Management.

Sometimes financial crises lead to more effective recycling programs.  In 2002, New York City had a serious budget crisis — and a recycling contract with WMX that cost the city over $40 million each year.  The city decided to eliminate glass and plastic curbside pickups.

Immediately, residents protested.  Faced with a highly unpopular policy decision and an unaffordable contract, the city looked for alternatives.  Within months they found one.  New York City entered into a contract with a scrap materials dealer who treated the collected materials as commodities to sell rather than wastes to remove. Today, that company (which owns Midwest Metal, who will be handling some neighborhoods south of Hyde Park beginning today) pays New York City a few million dollars per year from the revenues they make off collected metals on the open market. That revenue offsets the costs of collecting all recyclables, including glass and plastics.  Changing contracts to recognize that recyclables are commodities to sell rather than wastes to be charged for provided New York’s residents with a functioning recycling program that didn’t exhaust the budget.

Roosevelt Professor Carl Zimring discusses New York City’s experience in the last chapter of his book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America and taught about it last year in the first offering of SUST 240 Waste. A downtown version of that seminar will be offered in Spring 2012, during which this trial program will be evaluated by the city. For more information on the seminar 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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