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What's up with the blue recycling bins?
June 4, 2009

Dear Cecil:

What's the deal with these blue bins? I had known about the Blue Bag recycling thing for a while — knew about but didn't use, just like everyone else, it seems. But just the other day, magical blue recycling bins sprang unbidden out of the sidewalk in front of everyone's house on my street! Is the city actually going to send special trucks to collect recyclables out of these bins, or are they just going to chuck the recyclables in with the trash like they did with the blue bags?   

— BorgHunter, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

Your confusion is understandable. Just about everybody thinks blue carts (that's the official term, although "blue bin" more readily trips off the tongue) beat the old blue bag system, which was pretty much a fiasco and has now been abandoned. The chief gripe among environmentalists at the moment is that the city isn't doing enough to explain how the blue carts work, which, being a public-spirited guy, I'll now do. (Hint #1: Quit using the damn blue bags.) The real story, though, is the revolution in the recycling business that made the blue carts possible. Recycling used to be basically a futile gesture, something the virtuous did despite a nagging feeling that it wasn't really helping matters.  Not any more. As we'll see, now it actually makes sense.

Here's what you need to know:

Blue bags are out. Blue bag recycling ended in 2008, to the relief of virtually everyone. Announced in 1991 and in operation citywide by 1995, the program made superficial sense: people would put their recyclables into special blue bags, then toss the bags into the same carts as the regular garbage. The idea was that, by eliminating the need for a separate recycling pickup, the city would save money. But it never worked in practice, for reasons obvious from the start: once thrown into the garbage truck, a lot of blue bags got ripped open, contaminating the recyclables. Under the best of circumstances, workers had to wade into the garbage to hand sort it at city yards, a job every bit as disgusting as it sounds. And people just didn't like buying the blue bags. As a result, the recycling recovery rate was terrible. State law mandated that 25 percent of municipal waste be diverted from landfills; at best the blue bag program succeeded in diverting 10 percent of commodities (that is, non-yard waste), and most of the time less.

Blue carts are in. Belatedly recognizing that blue bags weren't working, the city began field testing blue carts in 2005 and is now rolling them out citywide. At the moment, 217,000 of the roughly 600,000 households that get city garbage service have them — this map shows current locations. (The city picks up from dwellings of four units or less; residents of larger buildings have to contract privately for garbage removal. Getting private waste haulers to recycle presents a whole different set of challenges, but we'll discuss that some other time.) In June, carts will be delivered to another 24,000 households in the area bound by Diversey, Kedzie, North, and the lake. After that … well, there's this budget crisis. If the city can come up with more money, everybody will have blue carts by the end of 2011. If not, not.

The main thing is, blue carts seem to be working better than blue bags. According to the city, the recycling rate for 2009 to date is roughly 15 percent — well below what the state wants, but higher than the blue bag program ever managed. Participation varies with the neighborhood, but in January the 1st ward, not known as a bastion of granola eaters, was just shy of 25 percent. That's with no public education program to speak of, about which more below.

All recyclables go in the same cart. The term for this is "single stream recycling" — there's no need to sort out metal, glass, paper, etc. Every other week the city sends garbage trucks out on a separate run to empty the blue carts. Depending on pickup location, the contents are taken either to a city yard or a private facility, where they're transferred to semis and hauled off to a privately-operated processing plant.  There the stuff is run through a multi-step sorting process — a series of screens separates items by size and shape, magnets pick out steel cans, and eddy-current sorters grab the aluminum. For plastics, each item is passed beneath a near-infrared light source, an optical scanner determines the type of plastic, and an air jet blows it into the right bin. (Different plastics, identifiable by the number in the chasing-arrows recycling symbol, must be separated before they can be reused.)

You see the beauty of this system: (1) Recyclables aren't contaminated with regular garbage. (2) Neither the homeowner nor the garbage crew needs to do any sorting, and all the recyclables can go into one compartment on the truck. (3) Sorting at the plant is highly automated —  human involvement is largely limited to quality control. (4) The sorted materials are relatively pure, almost always cheaper than virgin (i.e., new) material, and thus much in demand among manufacturers. In fact, under normal circumstances, the private recycling companies pay the city a fee for every ton of material they pick up, because they can turn around and sell it at a profit. Granted, economic circumstances at the moment aren't normal and commodity prices are depressed, so the city receives nothing, but — key point — it's not paying to have the stuff disposed of, which these days costs $30 to $40 a ton. (More precisely, it's not obligated to pay anything under the current contract, which is up for renewal at the end of the year.)

The upshot is, recycling is a business now — people do it to make money, as opposed to saving the planet. On the whole that's a good thing. However, the financial incentive also makes it likely the city will eventually start leaning on people to recycle. Many cities have done so already. Either you pay a fee for garbage pickup, which is lower the more you recycle, or you get a ticket from the recycling cops — fines in New York start at $25 and can go as high as $10,000 per day in the case of a high-rise full of pigs. To postpone that dread day, here's a thought: we could actually cooperate. Granted, that'd be easier if the city were more forthcoming about what exactly you were supposed to do. Instructions are available on the city website, but if there's downloadable flyer suitable for taping to your refrigerator, I sure can't find it. No matter; your columnist has taken the liberty of creating his own in PDF format using the city's instructions — click on the image below to get a copy:

A couple last things:

  • Don't put blue bags in the blue carts. We're done with blue bags, OK? Ideally, you shouldn't use trash bags for your recyclables at all, since they just have to be broken open and emptied at some point. That adds to the processing expense, and the bags themselves generally aren't recyclable. The city eventually expects to provide reusable bags of heavy plastic; in the meantime, you might want to invest in some of those heavy-gauge trash bags intended for contractors, which you can empty and bring back into the house.

  • Don't worry about it too much. Even if you're a doofus, BorgHunter, and put the wrong stuff in the blue carts, you won't kibosh the whole operation (assuming it's not nuclear waste). You do, however, have to put something in the blue carts. Be a sport and give it a shot, my friend. It's really not that hard. 

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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