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More than 36,000 recycling carts slapped with contamination stickers

The city has put warning stickers on thousands of bins after residents ignored a new rule banning the use of plastic bags to hold recyclables. The items should be put loosely into the blue bins. No bags. | File photo

More than 36,000 blue recycling carts have been slapped with “contamination” stickers in the two months since Chicago embarked on its “Go Bagless” campaign, but City Hall still has no plans to stop educating and start punishing homeowners.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in mid-January that a city that wasted more than a decade on a disastrous blue-bag recycling program was attempting to make another fundamental shift — by persuading Chicagoans to stop using plastic bags to recycle materials in their blue carts.

On Jan. 1, the Department of Streets and Sanitation implemented the new policy to minimize the costs associated with the plastic bags many use to collect other recyclables. Officials say the bags contaminate the stream of otherwise good recyclable materials and damage equipment at city sorting centers.

From that day on, recyclables had to be placed in blue recycling carts loose — no bag. Recyclables contained in bags of any kind would no longer be accepted.

Instead, recycling crews — either from the city or the private sector — would place a sticker on those carts informing homeowners of the violation. Stickered carts would then be picked up by city crews collecting routine garbage.

On Tuesday, City Hall disclosed the early returns.

More than 36,000 blue carts–seven percent of the 500,000 households who get bi-weekly recycling pick-ups citywide–have been slapped with orange warning stickers signaling contamination in the two months since the “Go Bagless” edict took effect.

Twenty-three percent of those 36,000 carts were specifically tagged for continuing to dispose of recyclables in a plastic bag.

Streets and Sanitation spokesperson Jennifer Martinez was asked when the Emanuel administration would drop the other shoe — by imposing penalties.

“At this point, there is no plan to move beyond the warning sticker on blue carts. We are going to continue pushing education throughout the spring,” she wrote in an email.

“These new warning stickers are designed to help educate residents on what has been incorrectly thrown into a blue cart. To further assist, the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s Neighborhood Outreach Team has been giving presentations on recycling at community meetings throughout the city. Ward superintendents have also begun going door-to-door to ensure residents have all the information they need on how to recycle correctly.”

Greg Maxwell, senior vice-president of Resource Management, agreed with the Emanuel administration’s decision to focus on education before lowering the boom.

He just doesn’t like the way the education campaign is being conducted and how it’s letting homeowners off the hook.

“What’s happening now is the city is coming behind with a trash truck [after warning stickers are applied] and emptying that cart. Which is unfortunate because there’s a lot of good recycling in it,” Maxwell said.

“That burden and responsibility should be placed on the resident. Let the resident go through the cart and take out the contaminants. Then, they learn something.”

Maxwell’s company has a contract with the city to receive, process and market blue-cart recycling materials.

He argued Tuesday that education alone will not solve the contamination problem. The city will ultimately need to get tough.

“After a couple of warnings, you’ve got to do something more. You can’t let someone continue to take advantage. You need to say, `If you keep repeating [contamination], we’re going to take away the service,’ ” Maxwell said.

“Those problems should not be passed on to processors like us or Waste Management. We shouldn’t have to be the recipient of contamination.”

The decision to steer clear of fines and penalties is not surprising, considering the other hit Chicago homeowners are about to endure.

Chicago’s $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee will be tacked onto water bills beginning in April, but it can be paid throughout the year without fear of late fees or water cut-offs.

Budget Director Alex Holt has said the decision to lift the hammer — at least for another year — is tailor-made to ease the transition to a fee that’s a suburban staple, but an uncomfortable first for Chicago.

The decision to be lenient also stems from the fact that the fee is being implemented in April, but took effect on Jan. 1. That means 613,000 Chicago owners of single-family homes and two-, three- and four-flats will be asked to pay catch-up for those months when the unified billing system was being implemented.

That could lead to a bit of sticker shock, when homeowners see the combined bill for water and sewer fees and four months’ worth of garbage fees.

Homeowners with a water meter will receive the new “unified utility bill” that includes water, sewer and garbage fees every two months. Those without a water meter will receive the new bill every six months, as they do now for water and sewer fees alone.

“We know this is a new fee. We want to ease the transition. We’ve waiving the penalties for this year. If people happen to make a late payment this year, we’re not going to take that into consideration,” Holt has said.

“Next year, we’ll expect people to pay their bills on time. We don’t cut off water in winter. And we give people a lot of notice before we cut off water. So, it will be some time before you would see anybody have their water cut off for failure to pay their garbage bill. Certainly, it won’t happen at all in 2016 and it won’t happen until well into 2017.”

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.

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

At the time, only 13 percent of city residents were bothering to participate in the blue-bag program.