Shades of Blue

Chicago trades blue bags for blue bins

Chicago is scrapping its blue-bag recycling program in favor of a more conventional suburban-style cart system. The city plans to distribute 96-gallon blue carts to 92,000 households this year and an additional 140,000 homes each year until 2011 to convert each of the city's 600,000 homes serviced by the city's Streets and Sanitation Department to the program.

“By adopting a system that people are enthusiastic about, we are more likely to see it succeed because more people will incorporate recycling into their day-to-day routines,” said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Environment, in a press release. “While the Blue Bag did help to produce a respectable diversion of waste from our landfills, changes in recycling technology and the increased value of recycled materials made the shift to separate collection a viable option.”

The new program also accommodates yard waste, which will be collected once a week from April through November. Residents must place their yard waste into separate bags and place them next to the blue carts for collection.

The city's controversial blue bag program started in 1995 and called for residents to place their recyclables in blue bags, which would be mixed with the normal trash collected by the city.

Julie Dick, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, applauds the switch to blue carts. The coalition has opposed the blue bag program ever since the ordinance was passed. She says the program yielded poor results because very few bags survived the collection process. Broken bags, she says, would mix recyclables with trash and contaminate the recyclables, which led to poor recovery rates. The city was unwilling to scrap the blue bag program, she adds, because of the size of its initial investment, an estimated $60 million.

Dick says the phased distribution of the new carts will not hurt the city's diversion rate. “We've never really had a culture of recycling here in Chicago,” she says. In fact, during the short time since the first bins were distributed, the city's diversion rate has more than doubled from 8 percent to 17 percent, she says.

The city also plans to double its number of regional recycling drop-off centers. Currently, there are 16 such centers in the city. The new ones will be located at city facilities and park district sites.

“In addition to the citywide shift to the blue cart, we commend their expansion of drop-off centers, which will facilitate the greatest amount of recycling during the transition period,” said Mike Mitchell, executive director of the Illinois Recycling Association, in a press release. “We feel that the most important reason to recycle is that the various types of paper, metal, plastics and glass are valuable resources and commodities with strong markets.”