Garbage grid system expands; hybrid City/private recycling
December 7, 2012

By Dan Kolen

In an effort the City government promises will save $15 to $20 million per year on garbage collection, City officials expanded implementation of a new garbage grid system on Nov. 12.

Various North Side wards had been the first affected earlier this year. In mid-November, officials added 115,000 households to the grid system. Most of those affected were in northwest, west, and near southwest neighborhoods, including individuals in the 2nd and 27th Wards.

The system’s goal is to pick up refuse at a fraction of the cost of the old system without sacrificing service. Rather than working based on ward lines and contending with the wards’ often irregular boundaries, the new system works on a grid system with borders consisting of main streets and natural boundaries.

By erasing the former ward-by-ward garbage collection method used citywide for years, officials hope the new system will be both cheaper and more efficient. “Operationally, the system allows us to serve the same number of houses with fewer crews,” said Anne Sheahan, director of public affairs for Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. “We’re going from ward geography to natural boundaries with the grid.”

“We were apprehensive about the grid system,” said Alderman Walter Burnett of the 27th Ward. “But we want to give the grid a chance, and the reason is because of the economy. This will supposedly save a lot of money.”

Early on, the new system had its problems.

In the beginning of August on the Northwest Side, 76 calls came in from residents complaining of refuse left along the streets, a fourfold increase over the usual number of complaints, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.

The City responded and, by the following week, complaints dropped to 24.

“Aldermen across the city are hearing mixed reviews,” Burnett added. “We’re just waiting to see how it will affect us. That said, we’re supportive of anything that will be better.”

For Burnett, the portion of the 27th Ward east of Damen Avenue has been affected by the change. He indicated the rest of the ward can expect changes in early 2013.

“The east side of the ward, you have lots of condos,” Burnett said. “West is where the rubber hits the road. That’s where you’ll see if the grid really works. You’re seeing folks hanging out on corners, throwing garbage everywhere.

That’s where I have the biggest apprehension. How will the collectors respond to the problems there?”

A private firm and members of Laborers’ Local 1001 will work jointly on City recycling. “I’m very pleased with my membership,” said Local 1001’s Lou Phillips. “They’re stepping up to the plate.”

Call 311

The Department of Streets and Sanitation encourages all residents to route complaints to the City’s 311 number.

“I think you will see operational issues occasionally; that’s unavoidable,” Sheahan said. “To date, the reported issues with the grid have been minor.”

Alderman Robert Fioretti of the 2nd Ward called the system “too convoluted, too confusing, too misunderstood.” One-third of his ward has switched to the grid system; he does not know when the rest of the ward will be affected.

“Aldermen shouldn’t be concerned with garbage,” Fioretti said. “We need a professional system with managers, regulators looking at it.”

Still, Fioretti favors looking at new ways of doing things, saying, “They’re on the right track. It’s about changing a mindset.”

Mayor Emanuel has advocated strongly for the new system. Earlier this year, he said the grid comes in a long line of services that are “high quality and efficient.”

At the time Thomas Byrne, then commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, said, “Everyone should anticipate receiving the same high quality, weekly collection services they have come to expect from the City of Chicago with a significant savings to taxpayers.”

Byrne has since been replaced by Charles Williams.

Some aldermen still question whether the system will work as well as the previous one. Others wonder if it is part of a work in progress toward a better, longterm solution.

Negative effects felt on the Northwest Side have not occurred in the 27th Ward. Said Burnett, “So far I haven’t received any complaints yet, and right now it’s too early to comment on the success.”

For many aldermen, they are waiting to feel the effects, if any.

Alderman Pat Dowell of the 3rd Ward said, “The grid system has yet to be rolled out [here]. I have no comment at this time.”

Expanding Recycling Service

The City has indicated that savings from refuse pick-up will allow it to expand the blue cart recycling program to all households that are four flats and smaller. This shift will push the total households served by recycling pick-up from 260,000 to 600,000.

Sims Metal Management Municipal Recycling won the competitive bid for the blue cart recycling contract, sharing responsibilities with employees from the City of Chicago. The program will begin in the spring of 2013 and should be fully implemented before the close of 2013.

“The grid system is allowing us to do city-wide recycling,” Sheahan said. “With the recycling program, we’re taking what would be waste going into landfills and putting it towards reusable material. That’s good for the city and good for the environment.”

Lou Phillips, business manager of Laborers’ Local Union 1001, will work managing the City employees on contract, which he estimates will total between 800-900 employees. Their responsibilities will expand to include refuse pickup and recycling, along with graffiti removal and other cleanup work. The City instituted a new training program to ready employees to become a one-stop system for all pick-up needs. It is running smoothly, according to Phillips.

The first class of workers in Local 1001 recently graduated, and the next group is on its way.

“I’m very pleased with my membership, that they’re stepping up to the plate,” Phillips said. “They’ve done it all along, but it’s always gone unnoticed. Now it’s out in the light, and they’re exceeding expectations.”