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Talking trash: City Hall's spat with Uptown Recycling

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For the last four years an uneasy alliance has existed between Uptown Recycling and the Daley administration. During that time the city paid Uptown an average of $50,000 a year to send vans from house to house on the north side, collecting bottles, cans, and newspapers to be recycled. But Uptown's operators never shied from criticizing the administration's long-range recycling plans, and city officials privately grumbled that the not-for-profit was operated by a bunch of ideological ingrates who used their press contacts to make Daley look bad.

Last fall, after several months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, Uptown decided to forgo the city subsidy and operate a user-subscription collection service. Subsequently, the city offered competing firms the chance to operate in Uptown's recycling area. Only the protests of some north-side aldermen and community groups that contend that Uptown operates the city's best curbside collection program persuaded the administration to back off. Administration officials say no hurt was intended. "I certainly don't see Uptown as an enemy," says Henry Henderson, commissioner of the Department of Environment. "I know we are in something of a dispute. But that's politics."

The center's operators, however, wonder whether the city was trying to sabotage them. "I think what happened is an attempt by the city to silence not-for-profits who are critical of its programs," says Dale Alekel-Carlson, Uptown's executive director. "I think the city would have been willing to let our program die."

At the heart of the dispute is the Daley administration's controversial blue bag recycling program. Proposed in 1990, the program would encourage residents to store recyclables in large plastic blue bags, which would be collected by city crews along with other garbage. The refuse would then be taken to a transfer station where it would be separated by hand. The garbage would be sent to landfills and the contents of the blue bags to various recycling sites.

The city contends that the program will offer recycling service at the lowest cost. "If we have separate collections for garbage and recyclables that means two sets of trucks going down the alleys and more pollution," says Henderson. "We have learned that the expansion of such services to all 625,000 households we service is financially prohibitive."

Critics, however, say the blue bag program is a waste of time and money. "The key to recycling is keeping different materials from mingling," says Alekel-Carlson. "You can't, for instance, recycle newspapers that have shards of glass in them. But if you throw everything into one truck the contents will mingle. I've been marketing materials for five or six years and I never have had any material rejected."

Alekel-Carlson's comments were echoed by others at several City Council hearings on the program in 1991. They pleaded with the city to at least test the service before launching a citywide program. But the council eventually sided with Daley, voting to spend about $40 million building the transfer stations. Daley predicted the service would be operating by summer 1991. That summer came and went, and while lawyers and consultants have collected their usual fees haggling with the city over details, the blue bag service is still not in place. Daley insists it will work eventually, but most environmentalists maintain the slow start proves what they have said from the beginning: the program just won't work.

While this debate simmered, Uptown Recycling's popular service was growing. By last summer it was operating three vans and collecting from about 3,500 households in Lakeview, Ravenswood, Andersonville, and Rogers Park. It had an 18-month contract, set to expire at the end of the year, under which the city paid it for every ton of recyclables collected and eliminated from the waste stream. On August 11 Alekel-Carlson wrote Henderson, asking for an 18-month extension as well as several changes in the contract's provisions. Most of the proposed changes were relatively innocuous; among them were requests to permit Uptown Recycling to collect materials from mid-rise buildings of 5 to 20 units and to add plastics to its list of recyclables.

On August 27 Henderson wrote back, agreeing to a one-year extension but making no mention of Alekel-Carlson's proposed changes. "It was a very confusing offer," says Alekel-Carlson. "There weren't even any operating dates on the contract."

So on September 10 Alekel-Carlson wrote Henderson another letter, repeating her requests for changes in the contract. "I gave him a deadline," says Alekel-Carlson. "I told him we had to have an answer by September 24 in order to make our plans."

Henderson did not respond; on September 28 Alekel-Carlson wrote a third letter that said, "Having received no call or correspondence from you or any other City employee in response to our September 10 correspondence . . . we assume that the City is not interested in further discussion about a contract extension." Uptown then went ahead with plans to operate a subscription-paid curbside pickup. By December they had spent more than $5,000 designing logos and printing fliers and had signed up almost 1,000 people who were willing to pay $45 a month for the weekly service. Word of the program spread, winning favorable articles in the local Lerner newspapers and the Tribune.

Then on December 21 Uptown received a letter from the city, offering them an extension on their city contract through March. "It came out of the blue; there was no warning," says Alekel-Carlson. "I called the city and learned from a woman in the purchasing department that the city would also be seeking bids to operate a collection program in our area. I thought that was peculiar. They had showed no real interest in continuing our contract, and now just as we're about to launch our subscription service they're going out to bid."

Alekel-Carlson requested and was granted a meeting on January 13 with Henderson. But the meeting was tense. Henderson refused even to send Uptown a copy of the bid request when it was issued. "There was nothing cordial about their treatment of us," says Alekel-Carlson. "We got short answers or no answers. I said, 'You never responded to our questions about the contract. When did you decide to offer the extension?' Henderson said, 'Sometime before we offered it to you.' I said, 'Does this mean you're not doing the blue bags?' And he said, 'Are you here to talk about our motives or the extension?'"

Henderson says the city was reasonable with Uptown. "I don't see how offering anyone an extension on a nonbid contract can be viewed as punishing them," he says. "Look, they made demands that we were not prepared to meet."

But why didn't you come out and tell them that in your August 27 letter? "I did," says Henderson. "By not mentioning their demands it is implicit that we are not acceding to them. At that time we were not in a position to meet those demands because the city was facing budget cuts and we didn't know how much money there would be for recycling."

In late January the city released its bid request, which included an unprecedented clause commanding the contractor not to "issue publicity news releases or grant press interviews and . . . disseminate any information regarding this contract or its services hereunder without the prior written consent of the [city]." The bid request also required contractors to "notify [the city] three days in advance of any community meetings or media coverage at which the Contractor will present or discuss any matter related to the services under this contract."

"We couldn't tolerate these stipulations--they amounted to a gag rule," says Alekel-Carlson. "Henderson says that these are standard in city contracts, but we had certainly never agreed to anything like them in the past. We want people to know the facts about recycling. And it was clear to us that the city was trying to control information because I think the data about our program would highlight the blue bag's flaws."

By this time word of the dispute had spread, and residents throughout the north side were coming to Uptown's aid. "I can only speak in the highest terms of them," says Rokko Jans, a member of the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association. "They're clean, efficient, and you know that the material will be recycled and not just dumped in some landfill. We were more than willing to pay $45 a month to have Uptown operate here rather than have some other company do it for free."

Jans and aldermen Richard Mell, Eugene Schulter, and Bernie Hansen met with Henderson on Uptown's behalf. Schulter was outraged that the city would pay to duplicate service in Uptown Recycling's area while most neighborhoods have no recycling program. Afterward, Henderson agreed not to accept competing bids; Uptown remains the only weekly recycling collection service on the north side.

Henderson says he hopes bad feelings will ease. "We never wanted them to go out of business," he says. "We only wanted to make sure that some sort of collection program would continue while we waited for the blue bag to come on-line. I wish them success, even when blue bag is operating. The more recycling alternatives, the better."

Alekel-Carlson remains cautious. "We have no interest in continuing a conflict with the city," she says. "The city has a golden opportunity to learn from our experience in collecting. It's sad that they are not taking advantage of that chance."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.

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