Update on Chicago’s Blue Cart Recycling Program

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. As of April 2012, less than half of city households had 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 in 2012.
For several years they sat unused, though in late 2012 and early 2013, the City began expanding the Blue Cart residential recycling program to more neighborhoods.


Last year the Emanuel administration introduced 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). After a six-month trial period (though without announcing key results of the trial), the City of Chicago 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 has lauded the cost savings for Blue Cart pickup over the trial period, it has yet to disclose how successful the program has been 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?

Since this essay was originally written in April 2012, Chicago’s blue cart residential recycling program has been expanded to more neighborhoods, though it is still in the roll-out phase. For more specific information on the status of recycling in the city, see the official recycling page on the City of Chicago website, as well as these updates from the longtime grassroots advocacy organization, the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

Update 2 April 2013

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