Will Chicago Treat Recycling As Commodities Rather Than Garbage?

During the Daley administration, Chicago failed to generate revenue from collected recyclables. Will the Emanuel administration make the same mistake?

Now that Chicago has started yet another attempt to expand recycling in the city, it is time to see whether the city will learn from past mistakes and (finally) develop a cost-effective plan that diverts materials from the landfill.

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 program that started this week 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.

Under the terms of the new contract, Waste Management and Midwest Metal Management arrange pickup of recyclables in the neighborhoods they’ve been contracted to serve.  The companies then sell the collected recyclables and keep the revenue from the sales.  The zones where city workers collect the recyclables will allow the city to sell the collected recyclables and put that revenue back into the city’s budget.

Will Chicago learn it can generate revenue from recycling?  If the city looks to its past mistakes, no.  But if it looks to examples in other large American cities, it will find precedents.  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 applyRU@roosevelt.edu.

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