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Emanuel: Competitive Bidding For Recycling Has Saved City $1 Million

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The City of Chicago has cut its recycling costs by $1 million in the three months since the managed competition program began, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Tuesday.

The mayor credited cooperation between labor unions and city government with improving efficiency in the blue cart recycling program.

In addition to the $1 million savings that Emanuel said "did not exist before," the competitive bidding program has cut the number of city crews dedicated to recycling from 22 to 16.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports


"Those crews are doing other things like forestry, tree trimming, rat abatement – other types of services," Emanuel said, "so we're delivering more services at better cost because of the competitive bidding in recycling."

The managed competition program for recycling began three months ago, when the city entered into contracts with two different private firms to handle recycling. Under the program, the city was divided into six service areas – four of which are now being served by those two firms, the other two of which are still being served directly by the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

The private firms are Waste Management and Midwest Metal Management.

Before the change, the Blue Cart recycling program was serving only a small fraction of the city's population – 244,000 homes, at a cost of $13.8 million for the city.

Before competitive bidding began, Emanuel says "the city of Chicago was a tale of two cities when it came to recycling.

"We were known as the most green city, but we did not provide the most fundamental of green services – recycling," Emanuel said.

Beginning April 1, 20,000 homes will be added to the blue cart service. By next year, Emanuel hopes the full service will be added for the entire city.

Meanwhile, Emanuel plans to expand managed competition by partially privatizing other service delivery functions.

"My main goal here – as I said in my budget – we are looking at seven other functions we will begin in the second quarter to bring competitive pricing and bidding to delivery of services, to make sure that city taxpayers get the best value for their dollar, and the city residents get better services," Emanuel said.

Back in 1989, demand mounted for a recycling program as the volume of garbage discarded by consumers grew and landfill space neared capacity. Then-Ald. Bernard Hansen (44th) called for a 100 percent recycling program within three years.

Then in the fall of 1989, the Department of Streets and Sanitation began a pilot program for recycling in four city wards involving separate trucks to pick up glass, plastic and metal.

But the city decided the volume collected did not justify a citywide program of duplicate garbage service. Instead, it worked toward implementing the much-maligned Blue Bag program, which did not require separate vehicles, but instead only separate recyclable bags that would go in with regular garbage.

The Blue Bag program was implemented with much fanfare in 1995, and the city said it expected to recover more than 1 million tons of recyclable material each year with the program. But eight years later, thousands of tons of garbage were still pouring into landfills every day. And recyclables were sometimes ending up there too.

But there were also flaws in the system in which recyclables were collected, recycling advocates argued.

The same truck that picked up regular garbage also picked up the Blue Bags, compacting all of the refuse together. Those in turn were removed from their bags, placed on a conveyor belt and sorted – dirty diapers together with bottles and cans – yielding a much smaller percentage than hoped.

On its official Web site in 2002, the City of Chicago reported that over 256,000 households per week were putting out at least one Blue Bag for pickup.

Still, the city ultimately decided to phase out the Blue Bag program. Retired Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans to do so in 2006, and two years later, the city announced the transition to the Blue Cart program.

But the problems didn't end there. Amid budget concerns last year, Mayor Daley had talked about privatizing or eliminating the city's recycling program altogether.

Meanwhile, Laborers Union Local 1001 lobbied for a $10 monthly fee for recycling pickups to subsidize the switch to current recycling, but no final action was taken on the issue before Mayor Daley left office this past May.

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