Home » Our Columns

Chicago’s blue bag recycling program: Garbage in, Garbage out

Dennis Byrne 12 May 2008 6 Comments

A pop quiz: When was Chicago supposed to run out of landfill capacity and we’d all have to start eating our garbage?

Answer? I don’t know exactly, but it was some time past, according to environmentalists who warned that in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s the city—and the rest of the country—would run out of places to dump the garbage. Adding to the crisis mentality were scary claims that leaking toxic substances and methane would poison and asphyxiate the populace. Somebody had to “do something,” and fast.

So, Chicago and other municipalities stampeded into adopting solid waste recycling programs. Americans suddenly were “educated” or forced into massive recycling efforts, separating paper, cans, plastic and other materials from the oozing, dripping, rotting stuff. Recycling became a matter of given truth in the bible of the caring, even though the net benefits were, and in some quarters still are, in doubt.

Among those jumping on the bandwagon was the then-recently elected Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the first of his many attempts to establish his green credentials. But instead of going for a relatively simpler, less expensive and more effective model deployed by most other jurisdictions, Daley decided he had to do it His Way, meaning, as Chicago columnist John Kass calls it, the Chicago Way. Contracts had to be awarded, concrete poured and friends rewarded. Ergo, the Blue Bag.

In most cities, residents simply put their recyclables in paper or plastic bags, or directly dumped them in green or blue bins that would be picked up with the rest of the trash. The reason it was a better symstem is that residents themselves first separated the recyclables from the rest of the trash, which was then taken away in separate trucks, or in trucks with separate compartments. No costly separation process was required downstream—trash would go to landfills and recyclables into inventory or processing.

But, oh no, that wasn’t good enough for Daley and his pals. In the early 1990s, the City Council passed the Chicago Recycling Opportunities Act, requiring that a recycling program be available to the city’s 700,000 homes and small apartments. The council left it up to the mayor to decide how to do it, and he came up with a doozy. (Large apartments and commercial buildings were covered, sort of, under a different, some might say, non-existent or little-enforced program. But that’s another story.) From the Blue Bag’s unveiling, environmentalists and anyone with a lick of sense, criticized it as unworkable, even stupid. It required residents to buy special blue bags, not always conveniently available, despite the criticism that only the most dedicated would spend the money and effort necessary to participate in the voluntary program.

It gets worse. The blue bags would be picked up by the same trucks as the regular trash, compacted with the regular trash and hauled to grand, new Materials Recycling and Recovery Facilities where some lucky devils would stand along a conveyor belt as the stew passed, separating the recyclables from the garbage . Some bags of course broke in the compacting while in the truck, mixing the garbage and recyclables, making it harder for the lucky devils to separate the wheat from the chaff. Often the recyclables would end up with the garbage and get hauled to the landfill. The figures documenting the failure of this system are indisputable, but the city disputed them anyway, claiming up until now—13 years later—that the system worked. Of course, Daley let some poor sap who had nothing to do with the creation of the program take the heat for the stinking mess.

So, why would Daley pick such an awful program? One reason is that Daley prefers “hard” solutions” over “soft” ones.” Whether it is picking up garbage or making the planes fly on time at O’Hare International Airport, it always requires ripping up, bulldozing and the pouring of concrete, lots and lots of concrete. Hard solutions are not necessarily bad, but the out-of-hand rejection of smaller, incremental methods requires an explanation. Here it is: Four new sorting facilities were originally expected to cost $28 million; eventually three were built for $60 million, keeping intact Daley’s habit of racking up fulsome overruns (e.g. Millennium Park, O’Hare Airport). That’s in addition to the $13 million to operate it.

Waste Management Corp. won the contract to build and operate the system; only one such system operated in the country, in Omaha, Neb.. by, of course, Waste Management. Bill Daley, the mayor’s brother, was on the board of a company subsidiary.

Is further explanation required?

The environmentalists were right; the system was a dud, and it took the Daley administration an unconscionably long time to admit it. But the environmentalists and professional alarmists aren’t completely absolved of their responsibility for the fiasco. Although they decried Daley’s concoction from the start, it was they who contributed to the crisis mentality that created opportunity for Daley to smell the meat a-cooking. In that, they performed in character. It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last (e.g. Alars, global warming) that they rev up our fears, unnecessarily.

Remember all those predictions of an ecological crisis when garbage dumps filled? Wrong. Today we have plenty of environmentally friendly landfills, thanks to the operation of the marketplace, intelligent planning and advanced technology. The landfill solution—unheralded as it was—was so successful that the initial motivation for recycling has disappeared, replaced by the rationale that recycling preserves energy and resources.

There is a moral to the story, it’s the demonstration that not all problems require big solutions, reasonable solutions are sufficient. Big solutions were necessary decades ago when we first began combating the polluting effects of a couple of centuries of the industrial revolution. Today, the nation’s air and water are vastly better. Further improvements will come, but they will be at the margins, where the costs can sometimes, if not often, exceed the benefits.

In the case of the Blue Bag, however, we couldn’t even say what exactly the benefits were. Unless you count the benefits that accrued to the mayor, the system and the Chicago Way.

Reasonable problems are reasonable solutions—the nation’s air and water have been vastly improved. Now, gains are to be had mostly at the margins, where the costs can sometimes, if not often, exceed the benefits.

Professional alarmists

That was one of the many doomsday predictions made by environmentalists that didn’t come true, and for years, Chicago taxpayers have been paying the price, thanks to the city’s astonishing bad “Blue Bag” cycling program, instituted in response to the manufactured landfill crisis.

Thankfully, the Daly administration, after years of defending the program that just about everyone believed was a bum idea, has swallowed its pride, unceremoniously dumped the program and announced it is moving toward the simpler, less expensive and more effective model adopted by so many other jurisdictions.

After decades, the value of recycling remains in dispute; does it, for example, cost more energy than it saves

IN THE LATE 70s and early 80s, reports on the hazards of garbage dumps across the nation—the methane gas they produce, the toxic substances they can leak—frightened nearby residents, and governments responded by tightening restrictions. At the same time the nation was producing more garbage and landfills were nearing capacity.


Dennis Byrne is a member of the Chicago Daily Observer Editorial Board.


  • BobM (author) said:

    Who had the Blue Bag contract? Was it perhaps, Mike Tadin or Tony Rezko or Mickey Segal?

    How come I wasn’t offered the chance to get the contract? I have a relative who works for the City.

    I guess she don’t got no clout, and nobody sent her.

    Boo Hoo!

  • Peter Schauer (author) said:

    This is really scandalous! King Daley took all the initial credit for this “program”. He wanted to re-invent the wheel and put his face on the Blue Bag. It busted! Too bad for taxpayers. I sincerely hope we did not have to pay for a battery of “consultants” to figure out this NOVA (No Go) that was doomed from the beginning. Dayley must accept full responsibility for this “waste” and should apologize to the citizens of Chicago.

  • SustainaBlog 002-6 » Blog Archive » The Recycling Dating Game (author) said:

    […] to make that much of a difference. There are even cases of horrid experiments in recycling, such as the Blue Bag System in Chicago which motivated by profits, harmed hundreds of workers and did nothing to solve our recycling […]

  • Are Your Recyclables Really Being Recycled? - Earth911.com (author) said:

    […] the tail end of Chicago’s much-criticized blue bag recycling program, I toured a waste facility with the city’s then-Commissioner of […]

  • Are Your Recyclables Really Being Recycled? | Earth911.com (author) said:

    […] the tail end of Chicago’s much-criticized blue bag recycling program, I toured a waste facility with the city’s then-Commissioner of […]

  • Recycling and our Presidential Candidates - Recyclingbin.com Blog (author) said:

    […] with the author’s opinion on recycling, please read it for background information on the Blue Bag only. To try and remedy the fiasco, Chicago now how has the Blue Cart Recycling program. The […]

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.