Cure for the Blues

WHILE CHICAGO'S BLUE Bag recycling program has been criticized as less-than-effective, establishing a curbside collection system frequently has been deemed too costly. But soon Mayor Richard Daley may have a means of financing such a system, aside from increasing taxes. In March, Daley announced that the city is considering leasing three transfer stations — as well as the Midway Airport and five parking garages — to the private sector, according to published reports.

The announcement comes nearly a year after Chicago sold the right to operate the Skyway Toll Bridge for the next 99 years for $1.83 billion. That money was used, in part, to pay off debt and contribute to a human services fund. The city now is looking at leasing more public assets to generate revenue for programs, such as separate curbside collection for recyclables.

Chicago residents, however, shouldn't begin throwing out their blue bags just yet. In order for the lease of the transfer stations — or any of the other assets — to occur, the city is waiting for Senate Bill 2872 to pass through the Illinois General Assembly. The bill would give the properties tax-exempt status, making the deals more financially attractive. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Don Harmon, has passed through the Senate and currently is pending in the House. If approved, it would apply specifically to Illinois municipalities with more than 500,000 residents. The city would then more closely examine the viability of the leases before making any decisions, according to published reports.

The Blue Bag program, which has been in place since 1995, requires participating residents to put clean recyclables in blue bags — not provided by the city — and then place them on the curb in the same container as the regular trash. The Chicago Recycling Coalition claims that contamination is a problem and that the rate of recycled materials never significantly has exceeded 10 percent. The city, however, claimed rates of nearly 25 percent for January and February of 2005. Both entities' estimates, however, are less than the rates found in surrounding areas with separate pickups.

If a pilot program in the city's Beverly neighborhood is any indication, switching to a more traditional curbside collection system could boost Chicago's recycling rate significantly. So far, participation in the program, which began in April 2005 and provides residents with 96-gallon blue bins, has reached 80 per cent.

A proposal made in December to establish a new $35 million recycling program was quashed.