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Emanuel rolls out plan to take blue-cart recycling citywide

Workers from Department Streets Sanitatideliver blue carts 3100 block W. Jerome new full city-wide expansiblue cart recycling program Chicago.

Workers from the Department of Streets and Sanitation deliver blue carts to the 3100 block of W. Jerome in the new full city-wide expansion of the blue cart recycling program in Chicago. Photographed on Wednesday, February 20, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 21, 2013 2:29AM

Chicago will no longer be what Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls a “tale of two cities when it comes to recycling.”

Emanuel on Wednesday followed through on his promise to expand household recycling to the 340,000 households without it while maintaining the “managed competition” between city employees and private contractors that helped make it possible.

The citywide expansion will impact 19 wards and be conducted in four phases.

The first service area — including the Far North Side 49th and 50th Wards and portions of downtown, the West Side and South Side — started getting blue carts on Monday with biweekly pick-ups scheduled to begin on March 11.

Carts will be distributed to the second service area — including portions of the mid- and Far South Sides — on April 15 with collections scheduled to begin “as early as April 29.” The first two service areas include 131,000 households.

All 340,000 households without recycling are expected to have it by fall.

Citywide recycling is expected to cost Chicago taxpayers $19.2 million a year, compared with a projected $31.1 million without the benefit of competition. In just one year, the competition has saved the city $4.7 million, officials said.

“A lot of people discussed charging the residents $10 more. I rejected that idea outright. And both through managed competition as well as through grid garbage that brought savings, we have plowed that back into expanding recycling,” Emanuel said Wednesday in the garage of a residential recycling drop-off center at 6441 N. Ravenswood.

The citywide expansion will coincide with a public outreach campaign to generate public “enthusiasm” for and boost participation in blue-cart recycling.

“We’re not gonna penalize people for not recycling. ... This is a service that people want, and I believe they will enthusiastically embrace it citywide,” the mayor said, rejecting the idea of fines for Chicagoans who refuse to recycle.

What if they don’t?

“That’s a hypothetical that I’m not gonna engage in,” Emanuel said.

Former Chicago Recycling Coalition President Betsy Vandercook said there is enough “pent-up demand” in the 49th Ward at least to make fines unnecessary.

“People have newspapers and bottles in their basements ready to go. ... We had more volume come here to this drop-off site than even the Notebaert Nature Museum or the Center for Green Technology,” said Vandercook, who now serves as chief of staff to Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

“The best thing about going citywide is they can do citywide education. That’s something they were never able to do before because you had a third of the city on and two-thirds off. You can have CTA ads now. You can have ads on the radio. It can go into the schools now. Streets and San is no longer talking to a small section of the city.”

In 2008, Chicago gave up the ghost on blue-bag recycling after more than a decade of failure and denial. Under that system, residents were told to put their recyclables in blue bags picked up by regular garbage crews and plucked out at sorting centers.

By the end of 2011, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley declared that every one of the 600,000 households with city garbage pick-up would make the switch to recycling from blue carts emptied by separate crews. The expansion subsequently ground to a halt one-third of the way through after the city ran out of money.

That left 359,000 households in the lurch.

Their only recourse was to bring their recyclables to drop-off boxes, an inconvenience many homeowners are not prepared to endure.

“The former mayor was very invested in [blue bags]. When people in power become invested in certain ideas, it’s very, very difficult to give up,” Vandercook said of the 23-year odyssey.

“It took forever, and it was shocking. We’re so happy that phase is over, and we can move on to yard waste, plastic bags and waste reduction. There’s so much more than can be done.”

Vandercook said the next logical step is tackling the thorny issue of recycling in commercial and large residential buildings. Some recycle. Some don’t.

“There’s no teeth in the old legislation. The old legislation allowed co-mingled waste. The waste hauler could pick it up and say, `I’m gonna sort it off-site,’ and that was considered legal,” Vandercook said.

“That law has to be rewritten to have firm guidelines — that you have to have source-separated waste in your building. There would be a fine. It would be like any other building inspection.”

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