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Critics say blue bags won't help Columbus recycling rate

Mayor Michael Coleman calls the city of Columbus's recycling efforts pitiful. Just 3% of households participate in the city's current curbside recycling program. The mayor is planning a new pilot recycling program to boost participation, but some warn it may be trouble.

Last year in the city of Columbus, residents threw out about 340-thousand tons of trash. They recycled a little more than 20-thousand tons. But Mayor Michael Coleman thinks he might have a solution.

Late last month, he introduced a pilot recycling program, called blue bag. Residents would put their paper, bottles and cans in a blue plastic bag, and then throw it in with the rest of their garbage. The blue bags would be pulled out for recycling at the transfer station.

The program will be rolled out to 10-thousand homes this spring. The city will concentrate on teaching those residents about recycling and how the program works. If it is a success, Mayor Coleman says he'd like to take it citywide by the end of 2006. But that would be a horrible mistake, says Betsey Vandercook, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. Chicago has had its own blue bag program for a decade.

In Chicago, the program has faced frequent criticism. A recently released study found just 13-percent of residents participate, despite millions of dollars in marketing. Vandercook says residents are dubious and for good reason.

Columbus officials admit the blue bag program isn't the be all and end all but it's a good option, they say, given the city's budget limitations. Plus, Chicago's 13% rate is still significantly better than what Columbus has right now.

For the past decade Columbus has contracted out its curbside recycling program to Cincinnati based Rumpke Incorporated. Residents pay 5-dollars a month to have their recycling picked up. But only about 10-thousand households participate out of more than 320-thousand in Columbus. Amanda Wilson of Rumpke says other cities have greater participation because they build recycling fees into city taxes and residents automatically get recycling bins. That's not the case in Columbus.

Recycling experts say this system sets-up Columbus's recycling program for failure. It's simply not in residents' economic interests to recycle. The Ohio department of Natural Resources recycling division advocates what's known as a pay as you throw system,' where trash disposal costs money based on quantity and all recycling is free.

That's the system in Upper Arlington which has one of the best recycling rates in the state. Last year 46% of the city's garbage was recycled. But Pay as you throw is politically unpopular and it simply wouldn't be possible in Columbus, says Mary Carran Webster is assistant director of Public Service for Columbus.

The city spent more than 9-million dollars last year on tipping fees to dispose of the garbage at the Franklin County Landfill. Even if Columbus only increased its recycling rate to 20-percent, it could save up to 1-point-8 million dollars a year. The blue bag program is scheduled to start sometime in April in the southeast quadrant of the city.