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With city's "Go Bagless" effort, are recycling penalties next?

A city that wasted more than a decade on a disastrous blue-bag recycling program is now trying to make another fundamental shift by persuading Chicagoans to stop putting bags into their blue carts in a campaign that, recycling experts hope, will be a prelude to penalties.

On Jan. 1, the Department of Streets and Sanitation implemented a new policy: Recyclables must be placed in blue recycling carts loose without a bag. Carts that contain bags will no longer be accepted.

Instead, recycling crews will place a sticker on those carts informing homeowners of the violation. Stickered carts will then be picked up by city crews collecting routine garbage.

“Smaller plastic bags contaminate the stream of otherwise good recyclable materials. Some people are using them as another trash can. Bags get shredded. Plastic bags at sorting centers can damage the equipment,” said Streets and Sanitation spokesperson Jennifer Martinez.

“It’s easier for our haulers to see if there’s non-recyclable materials if it’s all loose in the bin.The whole point is to produce a better stream, not contaminate otherwise good materials and reduce unnecessary costs.”

Greg Maxwell is senior vice-president of Resource Management, an independent recycling company that has a contract with the city to receive, process and market blue-cart recycling materials.

Maxwell said plastic bags tossed into blue carts “get slimed up with other materials they come in contact with and get contaminated with fragments of glass and dirt.”

“There’s a very high cost to manually removing those plastic bags at the recycling plant. The cost adds significantly to the cost of processing. Consumers are, in the end, paying much, much more for recycling than they need to,” Maxwell said.

“It’s not a new thing. Plastic bags have never been included in recycling. What’s new is, they’re finally telling people they need to stop doing it.”

Maxwell said Chicagoans “need to be educated to do the right thing.” But once that break-in period is over, the city needs to get tough.

“The way it should happen is, if there’s plastic bags or other contaminants in the cart, the city is supposed to tag the cart, warn them and say you can’t do this and, if you continue to do this, take away the cart. That’s the plan. That’s what they told us they’re going to do,” Maxwell said.

“You can’t allow people to just ignore things. If you get too many [speeding] tickets, they take away your license. If you get too many stickers, they’re going to take away your recycling cart. You can’t continue to ignore it. They can’t let people continue to do the wrong thing. If they want to establish a fine, that would work, too. That would be better because people would know they can’t put wrong stuff in the cart. There’s a series of progressions. Educate `em first. Give them warnings. But after that, they have to do something proactive.”

Martinez acknowledged that the concept of confiscating blue carts from chronic scofflaws has been discussed. But for now, there will be no punishment of any kind. The focus is purely on educating Chicagoans to recycle correctly.

Before launching the so-called “Go Bagless” program, the city developed an educational website in partnership with Recycle by City that debuted in December.

It includes the do’s and don’ts of recycling along with common “misconceptions” and shows residents what they can and cannot place in their blue carts.

The Department of Streets and Sanitation put out a press release about the “Go Bagless” plan in mid-November and has been using door hangers to spread the word. Aldermen have also been including reminders in their monthly emails to constituents.

But, some aldermen say there has been too little publicity about the new ground rules, so many of their constituents were blindsided by the Jan. 1 edict.

Many had grown accustomed to placing their recyclables in plastic bags during the city’s failed blue-bag recycling program. They continued the habit because recyclables in bags are easier to carry to the cart.

“We’re trying to educate people. I have to start at home, by reminding my wife,” said Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

“People for years have been used to blue bags. When we dropped the blue-bag recycling program, people kept on using them because it’s easier. It’s going to take some time to break them of that habit. And it could use some more publicity.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said she has urged the Department of Streets and Sanitation to “be lenient” about the edict for a few weeks to give a private contractor charged with making recycling pick-ups in her South Side ward an opportunity to catch up.

The contractor does not always follow the pick-up schedule it’s supposed to follow, the alderman said.

North Side Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) said she has gotten one complaint about the bagless edict, from a woman who was tossing out cat food containers and was afraid to throw them in the bin for fear the “rats would come.”

Since the bagless edict has been in effect for just over two weeks, Martinez said it’s too soon to say how much resistance city crews have encountered or how many carts have been bypassed.

For more than a decade, Chicagoans were asked to place plastics, cans, bottles and paper into blue bags and toss them in with routine garbage.

Within months of the 1995 launch of the blue bag program, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that only one in four households was participating and environmental groups were dubbing the program “pretty close to a failure.”

In 2008, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley finally gave up the ghost on blue-bag recycling and ordered the switch to blue carts he once dismissed as “cost-prohibitive.”

At the time, only 13 percent of city residents were bothering to participate, and an even lower percentage of their recyclables were actually diverted from the city’s 1.2 million tons a year of trash.

By the end of 2011, every one of the 600,000 Chicago households that get city garbage pickups was supposed to make the shift to suburban-style curbside recycling from blue carts, instead of bags.

At the time, Daley vowed to bankroll the switch by persuading private companies to sign a long-term lease for three sorting centers where solid waste and recyclables are processed and transferred.

They were operated by Allied Waste Transportation, a clout-heavy company with ties to Bridgeport trucking magnate Fred Barbara and to the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) at the center of the City Hall hiring scandal.

Two years later, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that at least 22,000 blue recycling carts with a price tag of $1 million were stashed away in a Far South Side warehouse because Daley bought them to make the citywide switch to blue cart recycling but ran out of money one-third of the way through.

Daley subsequently explored the possibility of privatizing household recycling but retired from politics before he could pull it off.

Emanuel took office at a time when Chicago was a “tale of two cities” when it came to recycling. Some neighborhoods had blue carts. Others did not.

He managed to deliver citywide recycling only after saving millions by setting up a managed competition for recycling pick-ups between private contractors and city crews and by switching routine garbage pick-ups to a less costly grid system.