Will Chicago Learn to Treat Recycling as a Commodity?

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

Currently, the City of Chicago is overseeing a six-month “managed competition” program in yet another attempt to expand recycling in Chicago.  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.

Roosevelt Professor Carl Zimring discusses some of the challenged of municipal recycling programs in his book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (as well as the Roosevelt University seminar SUST 240 Waste).   Zimring emphasizes an important dimension to Chicago’s new managed competition program — only one of the three stakeholders (which you can see in this map) hauling recycling has the potential to generate revenue from the collected materials. The four areas in which Chicago has contracted with private haulers to collect recycling gives the sale rights to all materials to those haulers.  Only in the two zones where city workers pick up the recycling does the city have any chance to generate revenues from the commodities.  At a time when Chicago has already given up revenues from parking meters, recycling is one of the rare services that may provide revenue to the municipal budget — but only if Mayor Emanuel’s administration chooses to keep city workers picking up recycling.

Chicago may turn to the example of New York City to see how this might work.  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.

A key difference in the two contracts was that New York City paid Waste Management tens of millions of dollars to haul recyclables (including highly valuable metals) away, whereas the new deal had city workers collect the recycling and sell them to the scrap dealer.  Instead of treating the materials as burdens requiring a company to haul away, New York City began to treat recyclables as commodities to sell — commodities that provide revenue to a stressed municipal budget in hard economic times.

Will Chicago learn from New York City’s example? If the city decides to continue having public employees collect the recyclables and then sell them to scrap recycling firms (and early reports indicate the city workers may provide the most affordable services in the “managed competition” plan), it may.  This will be a subject the SUST 240 Waste seminar will examine again in 2012 as Chicago tries yet again to develop an effective and affordable recycling program.  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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