From: Gary Washburn and Dan Mihalopoulos, Chicago Tribune
Published March 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Daley Blames Public for Recycling Program's Woes

CHICAGO — Mayor Richard Daley blamed public apathy toward recycling Tuesday for the decline in the performance of his controversial blue bag program.


Daley defended the blue bag concept, which he introduced in 1995, and said the politically connected company that operates the city recycling program is "doing a good job."


"People don't recycle," the mayor said. "I don't know why. We are pulling plastic, bottles, cans, blue bags. We are doing our best."


The Tribune reported Sunday that the city has salvaged less paper, plastic, metal and other recyclables in the last two years than at any time since the blue bag program's earliest years. The volume of recyclables recovered at recycling centers dropped to less than 90,000 tons last year from 126,000 tons in 2000.


The most dramatic drop in recycling came since clout-heavy Allied Waste Transportation became Chicago's blue bag operator in 2003. Longtime Daley friend Fred Barbara is making $1.7 million as a consultant to Allied.


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"I am very proud of the program," Daley said. People "want excuses not to recycle," he said. Blue bags are "the simplest way" to recycle household garbage, but "it requires education," he said.


Under blue bag recycling, the city asks residents to buy blue plastic bags and put recyclables in them. The bags are picked up together with other garbage, and workers are responsible for pulling them from mounds of garbage.


"We never gave up recycling," the mayor said.


Only 13.3 percent of Chicagoans participate in blue bag recycling, according to a 2003 city study. The city last year hired MK Communications, owned by Daley ally Marilyn Katz, to lead a $740,000 campaign to boost participation.


But critics of the blue bag program say Chicago would be better off if homes put garbage and recyclables in separate bins. That's the practice in the suburbs and other major cities, and the city is planning a pilot program that adopts separate collection.


"People are not apathetic about recycling," said Betsy Vandercook, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. "Blue bag is convenient for [Daley's] friends because they make money off it. But it's not convenient for the citizens."


She said people are more likely to participate in recycling programs in cities that collect recyclables separately.


Almost 30 percent of the city's residential refuse never makes it to the giant sorting centers built for the blue bag program. Garbage from 21 wards instead goes to transfer stations, which are not equipped for recycling.


Industry experts say that benefits Allied. The company and its blue bag subcontractors have donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Daley allies.


Allied workers pull blue bags from waste piles at the company's three transfer stations, said Al Sanchez, commissioner of the Streets and Sanitation Department. "That is happening," he said.


A city inspector cited Allied for failing to extract blue bags at a South Side transfer station in December.


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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