Recycling in Chicago: A Mixed Bag

Although famous for many things, Chicago evokes different images to different people. To sports fans, for instance, the Chicago Bulls, the White Sox and Wrigley Field may spring to mind. To an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright may be the initial association, while, to a musician, the city's celebrated blues scene is an obvious choice.

Similarly, for many waste management professionals, it's hard to picture Chicago without thinking of the city's residential blue bag recycling program. The largest of its kind in the nation, the blue bag program, at least in the early days of implementation, faced nearly as much controversy as the infamous Chicago-based Jerry Springer Show. Now in its sixth year in operation, however, the blue bag program has worked out a lot of the initial kinks and has become an accepted part of the recycling landscape.

Nevertheless, like many municipal solid waste and recycling programs around the country, Chicago officials are looking for ways to improve recycling — and overall solid waste management in the city — in the new millennium. The blue bag program, together with commercial solid waste collection and recycling in Chicago, presents an interesting and important backdrop for this year's WasteExpo.

It's in the Bag

Residential solid waste and recycling literally are intertwined in the city of Chicago. With the start of the blue bag program in December 1995, the city ushered in a new type of commingled collection system for recyclables: using blue bags for recyclable materials that are collected weekly alongside solid waste.

Today, primarily through trial and error, the program's operators have addressed many of the concerns initially raised about the system and are poised to make more improvements to ensure the program's future success.

“Things are going well five years into the program,” says Bill Abolt, commissioner of the Department of Environment (DOE), the agency that oversees the blue bag recycling program. “We've now got a mature program that's really performing well.”

The program has met and exceeded its goals of 10 percent diversion by the end of 1996 and 25 percent diversion by 1997. Currently, the blue bag program is diverting approximately 26.8 percent of waste from the 750,000 households serviced by the program, according to Jessica Rio, a spokeswoman for the DOE. Citywide — that is, from both residential and commercial sources — Chicago's recycling rate is 47 percent.

The long-term success of Chicago's blue bag program is crucial because the city invested much up-front capital and resources in the program. Most notably, the city spent millions of dollars to construct four custom-designed sorting centers that handle both residential solid waste and recyclables from the blue bag program. Houston-based Waste Management Inc., which built the sorting centers, holds a seven-year contract, which expires in February 2003, to operate the plants.

Despite these costly expenditures, one of the reasons city officials decided to implement the blue bag program was to avoid the costs of a separate fleet of collection vehicles and separate sorting centers for recyclables. Under the program, residents set out blue bags of recyclable materials — one for mixed wastepaper, corrugated and other miscellaneous fibers; another for glass, plastic and metal containers; and a third for yard waste — that are collected and commingled with residential solid waste in a single collection vehicle. The bags then are extracted from the mixed waste stream at the sorting centers.

“We believe that [the blue bag program] is the most efficient, environmentally safe and economical method of large-scale, citywide diversion of recyclables from the waste stream,” says Al Sanchez, commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS). DSS provides collection of the solid waste and blue bags from Chicago residents served by the program. “Commingled collection allows us to bring recycled materials to our sorting centers without additional crews or trucks, and, subsequently, without additional vehicle emissions,” Sanchez adds.

Approximately 33 percent of residents that are eligible to use the blue bag program actually participate in it, according to periodic DOE “alley surveys” of blue bags set out by residents. While program officials generally are satisfied with this participation rate, they acknowledge that public participation must be increased in the long term.

“Our focus this year will be on reintroducing the program and making sure people know how to use it,” says DOE's Abolt. “We need to re-energize the program.”

To that end, DOE plans to begin an advertising campaign this spring that will target residents and emphasize the importance of their involvement in recycling. “Now that we have a base of residents in place who use the program, we can introduce the program to a whole new group of people,” Abolt says.

In addition to the issues related to marketing a recycling program to a diverse population base in a major urban center such as Chicago [see “A Recycling Success from the Start” on page 142], re-educating the public about the blue bag program is an ongoing challenge for city officials.

“Maintaining the message and motivation are some of our biggest challenges,” Abolt says. “It just underscores the fact that education is the key to making it work.”

Singing the Blues?

Aside from increasing public education and participation, Chicago's blue bag program has faced a number of collection and processing challenges. When the blue bag program first was introduced, for instance, city officials faced a wave of criticism about the recycling method's viability. Among the major concerns that critics of the program voiced early on was the possibility of contaminating recyclables by collecting solid waste in the same collection vehicles.

While this and other concerns have been addressed, as with the program's education component, staying on top of the situation — and improving operations — is a constant process.

For example, since the program's inception, a number of modifications have been made to increase operating efficiency. On the collection side, for instance, DSS reduced the compaction rate on its collection vehicles to help preserve the contents of the blue bags and prevent contamination. That change, along with trying to ensure that residents properly close the blue bags and place them inside their garbage carts for collection, has helped increase recovery rates.

The most notable modifications to the blue bag program, however, have been made at the four sorting centers. Specifically, the installation of an enhanced recovery system at the centers has significantly improved the recovery of materials from the mixed waste stream. First implemented in 1998, the enhanced recovery system has been responsible for about a 200 percent increase in both aluminum and ferrous recovery, according to Mike Tunney, Waste Management's director of operations for the Chicago sorting centers.

“We looked at our entire processing system, which is a combination of manual labor and mechanized systems, and saw the opportunity for increased commodity recovery by further process separation,” Tunney explains. “Our goal with the enhanced recovery system was to take material that was between 2 and 9 inches and send it through an additional system of eddy currents and magnets to capture more [recyclables].”

Along with installation of the enhanced recovery system, Waste Management also has expanded its recovery of other types of commodities. “We've been proactive in finding other types of recycled products to recover — for instance, miscellaneous wood products and even more metals,” Tunney says. The company also has enhanced public education with a museum-like center at its 34th Street Sorting Center, which hosts tours for various schools, seniors and other groups.

Waste Management also has modified its yard waste handling procedures in response to odor complaints. In the early days of the program, some of the sorting centers, which are located within densely populated areas of the city, experienced nuisance and odor problems primarily caused by frequent turning of windrow piles, Abolt says. “We had to do everything from wind studies to testing the tightness of our buildings, but we came up with solutions to handle organics.”

At one time, Waste Management also faced problems marketing materials from the blue bag program. In the winter of 1997, for instance, mixed wastepaper and miscellaneous corrugated materials were landfilled for a two-month period due to a lack of markets for the materials. As a result, the city withheld payment to Waste Management until the materials could be marketed. (Waste Management, which maintains a mix of short- and long-term contracts with its end-users, has not landfilled any recyclable materials since this incident.)

“In the past couple of years we've really worked hard to make the program better,” Tunney says. “And we've really seen some tremendous returns on our time, energy and technology.”

“The plants themselves really are performing well,” Abolt adds. “We've now gotten to the point where Waste Management has a solid management team in place that knows how to operate the plants and operate them well.”

Despite both the city's and Waste Management's acknowledgement that the blue bag program can be improved, critics of the program — namely, the Chicago Recycling Coalition (CRC) — remain unconvinced of the program's long-term success.

CRC, which contends that the blue bag method of recyclables collection is fundamentally flawed, points to the increased potential for contamination of recyclables (the main reason that Waste Management could not market the materials and, therefore, had to landfill them in 1997) under the commingled collection method. In addition, the organization believes that, despite assertions otherwise, the blue bag program actually makes it more difficult for residents to recycle.

For instance, to participate in the program, residents must first purchase special blue bags for recyclables from licensed supermarkets or grocery stores — an inconvenient step for residents, CRC points out. This factor, coupled with the perception that recyclable materials are being thrown away by being collected in the same vehicle as solid waste, is responsible for the blue bag program's low participation rates, CRC believes.

“The public is concerned that their materials aren't getting recycled,” says Dana Sevakis, CRC's campaign coordinator. “This is completely against what they were brought up to believe — it seems backward to them. [The blue bag program] actually decreases participation rates because people don't think their stuff is getting recycled.” As a result, she says, “I get calls every other day from people who are looking for other options for recycling.”

According to Sevakis, both the program's diversion and participation rates, particularly the latter, have not gone up that much since the program's inception. With the initial contract for the blue bag program nearing expiration, CRC is about to embark on a campaign that, among other things, aims to change the quality of the blue bag program during contract renegotiations.

Although criticism of the program remains, the blue bag program's longevity in the city is clear, according to the DOE's Rio: “I think it's accepted as the way we do recycling in Chicago.”

A Hauler's Kind of Town

While residential recycling and waste collection are handled by the city, a mix of independent and national hauling companies service the majority of commercial recycling and waste collection in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the sheer size of the Chicago metropolitan area, coupled with the city's commercial and high-density residential recycling ordinance, offer a competitive market for the private sector.

Begun around the same time as the residential blue bag program, the High-Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Program requires all businesses, offices and retail establishments and high-density residences — defined as condominiums, apartments and residential buildings with five or more units — to provide recycling programs. Both recyclables and solid waste collection for these entities then are contracted privately. The DOE oversees the commercial recycling ordinance and provides assistance to building owners in complying with the law.

Specifically, the commercial ordinance stipulates that building owners and managers provide a source-separation recycling program that collects at least three approved recyclable materials or two approved recyclable materials and two approved source-reduction measures. Additionally, a recycling plan must be kept onsite, and a recycling education program must be maintained for residents or employees.

Waste haulers operating in Chicago also are required to make recycling services available to all of their refuse collection customers; haulers also may subcontract with a recycling service provider, transfer station or other waste control facility to meet this requirement. In addition, waste haulers are required to report data on both the types and amounts of materials collected for recycling to the DOE on a semi-annual basis. Failure to report these figures could result in the loss of a hauler's operating license.

The DOE uses these figures to help calculate its citywide recycling rate. “We have a very active private recycling market,” Rio says.

Similar to the city's blue bag program, the commercial ordinance calls for waste haulers, building owners and recycling service providers to strive for a 25 percent recycling goal. The ordinance also calls for a citywide recycling goal of 37.5 percent to be achieved by 1996 — which the city already has surpassed.

Despite meeting this goal, DOE is taking another look at the commercial recycling ordinance to further improve the program. Specifically, the agency plans to step-up enforcement of the ordinance in buildings, recycling centers and transfer stations, and to unveil more public education campaigns on recycling.

“What we'd really like to see in 2001 is to have recycling front-and-center again across the board,” Abolt says.

With the implementation of the commercial ordinance, both private and publicly traded national hauling companies have helped to increase the visibility of recycling in Chicago by providing a plethora of specialized recovery programs, materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and transfer operations in the city and surrounding metropolitan area.

Several large industry haulers operate in the city, although Waste Management and Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste Transportation Inc., a division of Allied Waste Industries, have established a dominant presence there, according to Abolt. Both companies have acquired a number of private Chicago-based hauling companies in the past few years.

Allied Waste, which operates eight transfer stations, six hauling operations and five materials recovery facilities in the Chicago metropolitan area, has implemented a strategy of “vertical integration” in the Chicago market. “From a collection viewpoint, we maintain our model of adding to and complementing existing operations and routes while internalizing volumes through transfer stations if necessary or by direct haul where feasible,” says Paul Howe, Allied Waste's district manager of the Chicago metropolitan market. “This allows us to deliver a consistent level of service to our customer base without fear of interruption.”

According to Howe, the diversity of hauling companies in the area — there currently are more than 35 licensed waste haulers operating in Chicago — also helps to maintain an actively competitive market where customer service is the primary driver between service-providers. “Chicago is still a very competitive market, and there are a lot of opportunities for the large and small hauler alike,” he adds.

Despite a trend toward consolidation by these public companies, a number of independents, such as Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Groot Industries Inc., and Chicago-based Premier Waste and Recycling, continue to make names for themselves in the Chicago market. Groot Industries, for instance, whose hauling and recycling divisions operate under the names Crown and Groot Recycling and Waste Services, bills itself as the largest privately owned waste hauler in the Midwest.

“With the exception of Groot, in the past five years there's been a dramatic consolidation of the waste hauling industry in Chicago,” Abolt says. “At one point, it seemed like virtually all of the private haulers had been bought out.”

Although Abolt acknowledges that such activity has had both a positive and negative impact on the market, the city's commercial and residential solid waste management and recycling programs have been unfazed. “Overall,” he says, “we think things are in good shape for a big city program.”

Contributing Editor Kathleen White is based in Portland, Ore.