Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Reader on Recycling

When I saw this story on the front page of the Chicago Reader, I wanted to bend down and hug the squat little distribution box just north of my el stop. Upon further reading (and it's quite a hefty article, at least by free newspaper standards), I began to wonder whether its author was making legitimate complaints or just adding fuel to this already fiery debate. I've included some of the most telling excerpts below, with minimal commentary, so readers can formulate their own opinions on the matter. The article opens:

If you live in a residential building with four or fewer units, you're supposed to put your recyclables into blue carts and set them out by your trash every two weeks—though ... in most neighborhoods there are no blue carts yet. [Or] you can take your recyclables to one of the city's 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren't already too full.

[But] if you live in a building with more than four units, your garbage is picked up by private waste haulers ... If your hauler isn't recycling, you can press the building owner to comply with the law, but he doesn't really have to fear being fined for violating it. Or you can take your stuff to one of those 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren't already too full.

If you live adjacent to a neighborhood that has the blue carts, maybe you can slip your recycling into the ones across the street, if they're not already too full—but don't get caught, because it's illegal. If you live next to a park, or visit the airports regularly, maybe you can take your materials to their plentiful recycling bins.

Or you can do what most Chicagoans do: say to hell with it.

Confusing, right? I think so, too. A good deal of funds allotted for recycling have been spent on studies, which show that only 8% of waste from city garbage haulers is diverted from landfills (private sector haulers fare slightly better at 19%). Studies also project that this number could easily be raised to 40% in both public and private sectors. So why is Chicago's recycling program still such a failure?

In April, city officials quietly released the results of a pair of studies they'd commissioned to help figure out how to reduce the amount of garbage produced in Chicago. One, a "waste characterization study," sampled trash around the city to determine what Chicagoans are throwing out. It found that we produced about 7.7 million tons of waste in 2007, most of it metals, paper, food and yard waste, plastics, used clothing, and construction and demolition (C & D) debris like concrete and steel.

The other, a "waste diversion study," analyzed what's happening to the city's garbage after it's picked up. It determined that most C & D debris is recycled and reused—as much as 65 percent, the result of a 2005 city ordinance as well as demand for the materials in the marketplace.

But the study also found that even with the high recycling rate for C & D debris, most of Chicago's waste ends up in landfills: 56 percent of metals from homes and businesses, 69 percent of discarded paper, 96 percent of food and yard waste, 96 percent of plastics, and almost all clothing.

The study authors, from a consulting and engineering firm called CDM, offered city officials some straightforward recommendations: offer blue carts citywide, provide more opportunities for residents to recycle clothing and compost organic waste, launch education and outreach programs, and start enforcing recycling laws already on the books. (The studies cost $494,250, about half of which was covered by grants, the rest by funds drawn from the city budget.)

Enforce laws already on the books. That seems obvious to me. So obvious, in fact, that I bristle every time I hear lawmakers debating issues into the ground for which practical (albeit unenforced) solutions already exist. Even more alarming to me, though, are these findings: almost all clothing is tossed instead of being donated!?! 56% of metals, 69% of paper, and 96% of plastics are NOT being recycled!?! And 96% of food and yard waste is NOT being composted?!? Not cool, Chicago. Not cool.

According to the study results released by the city this spring, just 14 percent of the city's waste is produced by the homes served by city garbage crews. About 61 percent comes from the C & D sector, whose efforts are one of the city's few recycling success stories.

The other 25 percent comes from businesses and what the city refers to as high-density residential buildings—those with more than four units, for which garbage collection and recycling are already in the private sector. For the last 20 years recycling in these buildings has been an even lower priority for the Daley administration.

In 1993 the City Council passed the Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Ordinance ... It requires that building owners set up recycling for at least three kinds of materials. If they don't, the city can issue warnings, impose fines of $100 a day, or take away the business licenses of retailers and offices ... In practice, however, the ordinance is almost meaningless, because city officials quickly decided that they didn't want to alienate property owners and building managers by enforcing it.

Well, so much for that idea. The article attempts to leave the Chicago's readers with a glimmer of hope in the closing paragraphs:

In lieu of curbside programs or a coherent high-density policy, the city has created 33 recycling drop-off centers that are well used, to the point where they're often overflowing. In fact, two south-side aldermen recently proposed fining suburbanites who sneak into Chicago to dump their recyclables at city-owned drop-off facilities. From the beginning of the year through the end of May, 1,900 tons of recyclables have been left at the sites, according to Matt Smith.

Recent changes to city and state law have made composting more feasible. The city's website offers tutorials, even for apartment dwellers, and several new commercial composting ventures are opening on the far south side. But for many people—even those with a deep interest in recycling—the city's current web of programs and possibilities is too difficult to navigate.

And where will that leave us, Chicago? Before too long, I imagine it will leave us wallowing in our own waste, because we've been clogging up the landfills with recyclable materials for far too long.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Greening of Brownfields

photo via Exelon Corporation site

Stop the presses! Chicago is the Second City no longer! At least not in the realm of environmental initiatives, that is. I personally thought the segment on this Brightfields Initiative that has come to fruition in the West Pullman neighborhood on Chicago's far south side was more of a headline story than an end-of-broadcast blurb, but these days, I'll take my good news any way I can get it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the EPA's Brownfields Initiative, Brownfields sites are perhaps better known as former Superfund sites. These sites, even after successful cleanup and remediation, are ill suited for most types of developments. For example, no one would want to purchase a Brownfields site and build a subdivision or an elementary school, or cultivate a community garden because -- despite even the most successful cleanups -- these sites are still heavily contaminated, it's just that the amount of contamination has been reduced to acceptable EPA levels. So the Brownfields Initiative exists to find viable uses for this spoiled land, such as turning it into a parking lot, or building a big-box warehouse or retail location (with provisions made, of course, for importing potable water).

The Brownfields to Brightfields Initiative takes this task one step further and put solar panels on these undesirable pieces of real estate, which brings clean energy, jobs, and (eventually) power savings to the surrounding communities. And in this, Chicago is leading the nation! Not only is Exelon City Solar the largest urban solar power plant in the country, it's also the first of its kind!

The 32,000 solar panels, which were sourced and manufactured from south side companies, are equipped to follow the rays of the sun as it makes its way across the sky, and will generate enough power to power 1,500 homes. Exelon has leased the 40-acre Brownfield site from the City of Chicago in a long-term deal, and according to the EPA:

"The City of Chicago and Commonwealth Edison have jointly committed $8 million to purchase solar systems in the next five years. The solar systems will be installed on other [B]rownfield sites as well as schools, office buildings, transportation routes, and municipal and commercial properties."

Exelon City Solar will also serve as a demonstration and educational site for other cities that want to harness the power of the sun. So let's hear it for Chicago, solar energy's First City!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

If You Can't Beat 'em... Eat 'em?

That's exactly what Governor Quinn is proposing we do about our Asian Carp problem. These pesky bottom feeders, which are too bony and taste too fishy for our weak American palates, are apparently a delicacy in China. So our esteemed Governor has partnered with the downstate Big River Fisheries and brokered a deal to market this "wild grown" fish to upscale restaurants in China.

The state's initial investment into this innovative initiative is $2 million to upgrade Big River's two facilities, which are some of the only ones in this state already equipped to handle the processing of these massive fish. Projected benefits of this investment include: 60-180 new downstate jobs, a marked reduction of Asian carp in the Mississippi River, and a local product that China actually wants to import. Quinn said that an estimated 30 million pounds of carp will be exported in the first two years of this venture.

Since this unwelcome species was introduced to American waterways down south nearly 30 years ago, they have been migrating north, largely unchecked, destroying native ecosystems as they go. Currently, their continued push has brought them dangerously close to the Great Lakes. If these fish succeed in reaching Lake Michigan, the results could be devastating to nature and industry alike.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blue Bin Blues

This front-page story of today's Chicago Sun Times stopped me dead in my tracks this morning. The photo, which showed row after row of unused blue carts-- stacked floor to ceiling and sitting in some southside warehouse-- that have not been passed out to qualifying Chicago households. To be more specific, roughly 359,000 of the 600,000 qualifying residences in Chicago are still waiting for the coveted blue bins to appear in an alley near them.

The blue cart program, which was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2011, ground to a screeching halt when Chicago, along with many other cities across the nation, witnessed their smoke-and-mirrors method of balancing the city budget evaporate along with the nation's economy back in 2008.

Aldermanic proponents of this city-wide program have called the stockpile of pristine blue carts (with an estimated value of $45 each) a "colossal waste of money" and demand that City Hall make recycling a priority once more. Mayor Daley defends his proposal to privatize the city's recycling, which he unveiled last month (just to freak me out, I'm fairly certain), claiming that doing so would cut $40 million of the estimated $60 million it would cost for the city to see this plan through to completion.

I'm including this blurb from The Huffington Post, aptly entitled "Chicago Recycling FAIL", which summarizes the Sun Times article and offers a more pointed reaction to the city's recycling shortcomings. I hate to break it to you, Chicago, but the only thing "green" about the recycling program in this city is our collective envy of the villages, townships, and even other cities that have managed to get it right!