Common misconceptions add to the Blue Bag program's stinky reputation
It's time for Chicago's annual "Turn Green to Blue" day on January 7, and no, that doesn't mean the city's going to flood Lincoln Park. It's the city's annual Christmas-tree recycling program, which invites Chicagoans to bring their evergreens to one of 22 locations and have them turned into mulch. The reward: a year's supply of Blue Bags.
The seasonal program spotlights the city's eco-friendly efforts to minimize waste, but the Blue Bag residential recycling program has taken its lumps lately—one alderman even called for its abolition. Daley seems to be staying true to the blue, so until another plan comes along, we'll address a few common misconceptions about Blue Bagging to help determine whether recycling in Chicago is really helping or just a waste of time.
Is anybody really using these Blue Bags besides me?
Actually, it's estimated that up to 256,000 households are Blue Bagging regularly, so rest assured that you're not alone.
What was the recent controversy regarding the Blue Bag program all about?
A Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that recycling rates had dropped rather severely since Daley-friendly Allied Waste Transportation took over the program in 2003. Apparently, almost 30 percent of residential refuse was not getting to the four "sorting centers" built to handle the Blue Baggage, but instead was going to "transfer stations" that are not equipped for recycling. According the Trib, the city had inflated its recycling results by only taking into account the garbage going to the sorting stations and not the approximately 325,000 tons going to the transfer stations—which are owned by Allied. This controversial exposé led some to believe that the Blue Bag program was being scrapped. Not true. It's alive (though not completely well).
What percentage of Chicago's waste actually gets recycled?
Of the 4.5 million tons of garbage this city produces a year, Streets and Sanitation officials claim approximately 25 percent ends up getting recycled. The Tribune investigation put the number closer to half that, but hey, that's still about 56,250 tons not being crammed into landfills, so keep your chin up, Streets and San!
What happens to those Blue Bags after we fill 'em and dump 'em?
They're (probably) taken with the rest of the trash to one of four "sorting stations," where they're piled onto a conveyor belt. The Blue Bags are separated and thrown down various chutes according to their contents: yard waste in one, bottles and cans in another, paper products in yet another. The chutes lead to more conveyor belts, which take them to separate areas of the center. The yard waste is turned into compost while the rest is crushed and "baled" into rectangles, at which point the plastic, metal, glass and paper will be sold to companies that turn it into...recycled stuff.
Are there certain items that simply cannot be recycled, like batteries or prosthetic limbs?
Yes, and they include ceramics, tableware, windows, light bulbs, spray cans, napkins, milk cartons, any plastic bottles not marked #1 or #2, carbon and laminated paper. For a complete list, check out www.obviously.com/recycle/guides. Although batteries cannot be recycled with the Blue Bag program, Chicagoans can take any type of dry cell batteries (e.g. alkaline, rechargeable, etc.) to any Walgreens or Chicago Public Library to be recycled. Prosthetic limbs should be donated to charity.
Are there things the public can do to help the process, like rinsing bottles, peeling off labels and separating plastic, glass and metal?
Improvements in recycling technology have made things like rinsing and peeling unnecessary, and the only separation that's required is paper products from glass and plastic containers. Ideally, yard waste should be composted, but if that's not possible, put it in a separate Blue Bag and the city will haul it off into the sunset.
For details on "Turn Green Into Blue," see listings. See www.cityofchicago.com for recycling times and locations.