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Blue-cart recycling expands to all city neighborhoods

Chicago Streets Sanitatiworkers put out recycling blue carts West Lakeview neighborhood 2007.   Sun-Times file phoby Al Podgorski

Chicago Streets and Sanitation workers put out recycling blue carts in the West Lakeview neighborhood in 2007. Sun-Times file photo by Al Podgorski

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Updated: May 7, 2012 8:15AM



Blue-cart recycling will be expanded to all Chicago neighborhoods next year — and to 20,000 additional households in Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square this week — thanks to $2.2 million saved by forcing city employees to compete against private contractors, City Hall said Thursday.

A service that cost the city $4.77 for every blue cart collected before the competition is now being provided by city crews for $3.28 a cart including the sale of recyclables and by private contractors for $2.70 a cart, officials said.

That’s a $2.2 million savings over a six-month period.

Competition between city employees and private contractors has been so successful in driving down both costs and employee absenteeism, Mayor Rahm Emanuel hinted strongly that he might just prolong a competition that was supposed to end in June.

City employees and private contractors will also compete for the right to provide two more housekeeping services — tree-trimming and street marking — with a request-for-proposals (RFP) expected to be issued next week.

“You don’t get the work. You have to earn the work because we have to watch every dollar, every penny for the taxpayers,” Emanuel said at the Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1359 N. Humboldt Drive.

“We’re keeping competition in place because it keeps everybody honest. … There’s no doubt they operate in different ways. [Private contractors] assume more of the risk. But, I don’t want to lose the competition. The whole goal wasn’t to pick companies. It was to make sure taxpayers win.”

Pressed on whether city employees would get a “hometown discount,” the mayor said. “No. What will happen is that every six months Tom [Byrne, Street and Sanitation commissioner] and his team are gonna evaluate this because, if somebody brings the price [down] even further, we’ll rip that Band-Aid off” and choose one winner.

Lou Phillips, business manager of Laborers Local 1001, was once confident city employees would win the competition against a pair of private contractors: Waste Management and Sims Municipal Recycling.

But, now that city crews — with a laborer and a driver — remain 58-cents-a-cart more expensive than private crews with a driver working alone, Phillips said he’d be happy to just keep the competition going.

“If we have two zones covering half the city and they have four, I’m happy to have my members working. In this economy, we’re just happy to have jobs,” he said.

“We’ve worked together to save millions of dollars. If the mayor decides he wants to keep the competition going, it’s his city and his decision. I’m happy we’re still in the ballpark.”

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez applauded the mayor for not rushing to judgment and making a “snap decision just because somebody comes in and offers a lower price.”

He warned, “Once you diminish the city’s in-house capacity to do any of this type of work, private sector costs will only go up. They won’t come down. You’re at the mercy of the private sector folks. That’s a cause for concern.”

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 made Chicago, what Emanuel has called a “tale of two cities”— and 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. This week’s expansion to Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square brings the total number of households served to 261,000.



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