City of Chicago Will Expand Blue Cart Recycling Across City Before 2014. But How Well Does It Work?

The method Chicago decided to use to pick up recyclables from households after the Blue Bag program failed is by distributing Blue Carts for residents to use.  To date, less than half of city households have access to Blue Carts, and thousands of undistributed carts are gathering dust in storage due to costs.

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

Now that a “managed competition” program to collect Chicago’s recycling (in which the city is divided into six zones, with Waste Management collecting from three, Midwest Metals Management collecting from one, and city workers collecting from two) has completed its six-month trial (though without announcing key results of the trial), the City of Chicago has announced plans to distribute Blue Carts across the city by the end of 2013.

Blue-cart recycling will be expanded to all Chicago neighborhoods next year — and to 20,000 additional households in Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square this week — thanks to $2.2 million saved by forcing city employees to compete against private contractors, City Hall said Thursday.

A service that cost the city $4.77 for every blue cart collected before the competition is now being provided by city crews for $3.28 a cart including the sale of recyclables and by private contractors for $2.70 a cart, officials said.

That’s a $2.2 million savings over a six-month period.

Competition between city employees and private contractors has been so successful in driving down both costs and employee absenteeism, Mayor Rahm Emanuel hinted strongly that he might just prolong a competition that was supposed to end in June.

City employees and private contractors will also compete for the right to provide two more housekeeping services — tree-trimming and street marking — with a request-for-proposals (RFP) expected to be issued next week.

While the city lauds the cost savings for Blue Cart pickup over the trial period, it has yet to disclose how successful the program is at actually diverting materials from landfills (which is a reason to have recycling). The public does not know what data is being collected or how the city determines that the data is accurate.  Many questions about the effectiveness of the recycling program are unanswered.  We do not know what measures are being used to measure the quantity and quality of recycling.  We do not know where the Streets and Sanitation workers take their collections, where Waste Management and Midwest Metals take theirs, and how much of this collected material is reprocessed by industry. We do not know how the economics of the program are assessed. Is Chicago measuring the cost per bin or cost per ton of recycling? Is the city being reimbursed for the recycling commodities Streets and Sanitation workers collects, and if so, is this revenue being counted in the competition? Is the city educating residents on what to sort into the Blue Carts and into their garbage cans? Can the city provide a public assessment of which areas have the most and least customer satisfaction for current pickup programs? Finally, while expansion of Blue Carts to single-family households is certainly progress, when will the city enforce the Burke-Hansen mandate that highrise buildings contract out to collect recyclables? Chicago is unusual among large American cities in that residents in both poor and affluent neighborhoods alike may lack recycling if they live in large buildings. When will this end?

Chicago’s continued problems with recycling have been examined in several Roosevelt courses, including SUST 240 Waste and SUST 210 The Sustainable Future (offered 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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