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To improve recycling, will Chicago turn to privatization?

Mayor Daley has proposed the idea of privatization, after Chicago's own 'blue bag' recycling program flopped. But the next mayor may be the one to decide.

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In his six terms in office, Mayor Richard M. Daley planted trees on parkways and flowers on traffic medians, launched a plan to cut the city's carbon emissions, and encouraged rooftop gardens, starting with one atop City Hall.

But his green portfolio, critics say, is missing a major piece: a successful recycling program. According to city data, only 8 percent of Chicagoans' waste is being recycled annually. The two largest US cities, New York and Los Angeles, recycle 12 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

"This is one of the inexplicable failures of the Daley administration," says Mike Nowak of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, an environmental advocacy group.

Chicago's recycling woes date back to a 1995 program in which recyclables, stowed in blue plastic bags that residents had to buy at stores, were collected along with everyday garbage. Cramming both together on the sanitation truck often led to bags breaking open, contaminating the recyclables and making them unfit for a recycling plant.

Worse, the blue bags often were never collected at all. In 2008, the city shuttered the program, replacing it with curbside pickup of common recyclables. But the free pickup is available to only 241,000 of Chicago's 600,000 households and the city, $654 million in debt, says there is no money to expand the program in the near future.

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