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Questions on recycling and privatization

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With a pilot privatized recycling program set to launch Monday, the Chicago Recycling Coalition [2] is concerned that residents haven’t been fully informed about changes in the program – and that “managed competition” with city workers will be fair and transparent.

“The first weeks could be a little bumpy,” said Mike Nowak of CRC.  Residents could be confused by possible schedule changes and may not understand if their recyclables are rejected due to contamination under a contract provision with private haulers, he said.

“The key to making this work is education,” he said.  “You can’t just surprise people with this.”

He said the city is sending informational mailings to residents, but he wishes that had been done earlier.

The notification postcards (posted [3] on CRC’s site) give only general schedules and no information on rejection of contaminated loads.

“The key to success is whether people actually participate,” said Nowak. “Many residents grew very cynical” about the city’s recycling effort under the initial blue bag program, he said.

One of the private haulers recently awarded a contract by the city is Waste Management, the company that helped design the blue bag program, which never managed to recycle even 10 percent of the materials collected, Nowak said.  “Those are the people who ran the blue bag program into the ground,” he said.

Now private haulers will be able to reject recycling loads as contaminated simply by slapping stickers on blue carts.  The city will be required to pick up the loads.

“There’s always a concern about what is getting recycled and what isn’t,” said Nowak.  “There needs to be transparency and accountability,” he said, noting that residents with complaints will be directed to call 311.  “We’ll see how that works,” he said.

Yet to be addressed are shortfalls in recycling at larger residential buildings.

CRC is also concerned about “managed competition” between city workers and private haulers.  “We hope it will be a fair competition” and that city workers aren’t at a disadvantaged because they’re better paid, Nowak said.

“We don’t want to have recycling pickup at the cost of decent wages for people,” he said.  “We don’t want it done on the backs of workers.”

The city currently provides blue cart recycling pickup to about a third of the city’s households outside of larger buildings.  Starting Monday those areas will be divided into zones served by Waste Management, Metal Management Midwest, and city workers.

After six months the performance of the competing groups will be evaluated prior to recycling pickup being rolled out to the entire city.

One union representing city workers is optimistic that it will come out ahead.  “We think we’re going to be very competitive,” said Lou Phillips of Laborers Local 1001.  (Other labor leaders told the Tribune [4] they beleve the Emanuel administration is already committed to privatization.)

Phillips points out that in areas served by city workers, the city will get revenues from the sale of recyclables, which he said the city recently estimated at $3.5 million a year citywide.  In areas served by private haulers, the companies will get that revenue.

In that sense, contracting out recycling resembles the controversial 2008 parking meter deal by privatizing a revenue stream.

Mayor Emanuel is said to be privately opposing an ordinance [5] that would require public hearings and an independent evaluation of such deals.


An earlier version misquoted Mike Nowak regarding Waste Management’s record in the blue bag program.  We regret the error and apologize to Mr. Nowak.