Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is exploring the possibility of offering recycling homeowners a break on their monthly garbage collection fee to boost a “dismal” recycling rate that has dropped to just 9 percent since the rules were changed to “Go Bagless.”

The 22 percent drop in a participation rate, which was lousy to begin with, has also prompted a “back-to-basics” approach on the Southeast Side, where only 4.5 percent of homeowners bother to recycle.

Waste Management, the private waste hauler that handles recycling in that area, will simplify the rules by asking 1,400 homeowners to recycle only three categories of items: paper, metal and glass.

If that works to boost recycling rates, the “back-to-basics” approach could be expanded citywide.

“When we first got the little blue bins years ago, we put paper, aluminum cans and glass. It was pretty simple. Now, I feel like the things that can be recycled are so vast, it’s almost overwhelming to people,” said Anne Sheahan, Streets and Sanitation’s chief of staff.

“So, Waste Management is going to do a small pilot that asks people to come back to those basics,” she said. “There’s six different materials that we take. They’re gonna ask people to focus on three of them.”

The most enticing idea under consideration to boost recycling and reduce the city’s $38 million in annual landfill costs is to give recycling homeowners a break on their $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee.

Chicago Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams talks about the possibility of discounting garbage collection fees to incentivize homeowners to recycle and boost Chicago's "dismal" 9 percent recycling rate. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams talks about the possibility of discounting garbage collection fees to incentivize homeowners to recycle and boost Chicago’s “dismal” 9 percent recycling rate. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

“An incentive would help us. . . . You would get a percentage of your bill off. . . . We’re considering everything we possibly can to educate the public and get them interested in willingly changing that behavior,” Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams said.

“All you have to do is throw one bad item into that cart. Now, you’ve contaminated everything that’s in that cart,” he said. “If we can get them to do what they’re doing already but to do it correctly, now your percentages are going up.”

Williams acknowledged it would have to be a substantial break — say, 20 to 25 percent — to be enough of an incentive to change behavior.

“It would have to be a percentage that gets their attention. And it could be more than just giving something off the bill. . . . It could also be coupons. We’ve done that in the past. We had coupons for grocery stores, various stores. That’s another incentive. And there, you’re getting companies to help us out. They would be donating these coupons,” the commissioner said.

Williams said he’s not about to drop the other shoe by imposing penalties on homeowners who refuse to recycle.

“You put all of the correct things in that blue cart. You go back in your house. And then, some schmuck walking down the alley eating a cheeseburger decides he doesn’t like it and throws it in your blue cart,” Williams said.

“How do I penalize that resident when they had no idea that someone had put some contaminated food item in their cart? It becomes very difficult to penalize fairly,” he said. “That’s a challenge.”

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

On Jan. 1, Streets and Sanitation implemented the new policy to minimize the costs associated with bags that 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, without a bag. Recyclables contained in bags of any kind would no longer be accepted.

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

From Jan. 1 through Nov. 30, 180,462 blue recycling carts were slapped with orange contamination stickers.

The overall citywide recycling rate dropped from 11.5 or 12 percent at the height of the program to roughly 9 percent.

“People got into a routine. Throw it in a bag. Throw it in the blue cart. Once you get that routine, trying to break that routine [is difficult]. Folks don’t like change,” Williams said.

“Unfortunately, we brought that change in shortly after everyone got their blue cart. . . . We changed the rules. But if we didn’t, the items were not usable,” he said.

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

He does not believe that the city’s incentive plan will do the trick.

“There has to be some kind of a system where the consumer knows that they can’t continue to do that. One way is to not take the bin at all and tell them, `Your bin is contaminated. Remove these contaminants and the next time we come, we’ll pick it up. If you don’t remove the contaminants, we can’t pick it up,’ ” Maxwell said.

Another possibility is “some kind of fee” associated with that missed pickup, he said.

“The fee is not a penalty. The fee is to address the cost of what it takes to collect contaminated material and then having to transport and remove the contaminants at a recycling facility. Contaminants that should have been thrown out in the first place,” Maxwell said.

“Things like that work. Tickets work,” he said. “If people speed or go through red lights and they get tickets, they stop.”

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, low participation had prompted environmental groups to denounce the blue bag program as a failure.

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, 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 Chicago household with city garbage pickup was supposed to make the shift to blue carts, instead of bags. But, the city ran out of money one-third of the way through the transition.

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 pickups between private contractors and city crews.