After 11 years of less-than-stellar participation by city residents and businesses, Mayor Richard M. Daley terminated Chicago's blue-bag solid waste recycling program in October. Photo: Amara Rozgus

Once Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley champions a project, he's loathe to give it up.

So Windy City denizens were surprised when Daley announced that, after more than a decade, the city is abandoning his beloved blue-bag recycling program. Resident participation failed to meet goals.

Launched in 1995, the program was intended to provide a convenient, foolproof way to sort recyclables from trash, increasing diversion rates and, in turn, saving the city money. Participants placed paper, plastic, metals, and other recyclables in distinctive blue plastic bags and tossed them into refuse containers with the rest of their solid waste. The bags were removed from the waste stream at sorting centers the city built for $60 million.

Daley's administration trumpeted that the program would quickly divert at least 25% of the city's municipal solid waste from landfills. Instead, the rate was closer to 8%, and—as reported by the Chicago Tribune—only about 13% of Chicago's eligible homes and businesses participated.

Uptown neighborhood resident Rebecca Kell says that while the program wasn't without its benefits, several factors may have doomed it to failure.

“Participation wasn't mandatory, and we had to spend time and money to buy the bags and sort through our garbage,” she says. “I find it hard to believe that the bags weren't breaking in the trucks. Also, homeless people looted the bags for aluminum cans.”

While no major U.S. cities use blue-bag recycling, small-town America has enjoyed success with such programs.

Wauwatosa, Wis.—a Milwaukee suburb of 47,271—achieved a 21% diversion in eight years. According to mayor Theresa Estness, the city succeeded where others failed because of its heavy-duty bags, low compaction, increased transfer trips, better processing, and aggressive public education.

In lieu of blue-bag recycling in Chicago, Daley announced the city will expand a pilot curbside program next year, delivering carts through a state-funded initiative. The shift builds upon a successful test in the Beverly neighborhood, where participants achieved a 23% diversion rate.