Editors’ note: this article also contains the story “Garbage Through the Ages: A Brief History” which ran as a sidebar to the cover story on November 11, 1988.
I am sitting in what might be euphemistically called the passenger seat of a four-and-a-half-ton garbage truck as it pokes through the alleys of Oak Park, and I am discussing philosophy with the driver. Ken Dunn is so adept at steering this behemoth and manipulating the various levers and knobs surrounding the dashboard that he can talk about Hegel’s critique of Western civilization as he coordinates perfectly with his associate, who is walking ahead of the truck, gathering the refuse of the citizenry, placing cans, bottles, and newspapers in the appropriate compartments. It is not clear which subject gives Dunn more genuine pleasure–garbage or philosophy. In his mind they are as intimately connected as body and soul, matter and energy, problem and solution.
“You know,” says Dunn, shouting over the whine of the motor, “I’ve always believed philosophy ought to be about giving some answers, helping people face whatever detracts from the quality of their life, helping them make the necessary changes. When you keep philosophy dealing only with the abstract, it’s too safe, too comfortable.”
The ride today is anything but comfortable, because my seat is really a dozen burlap bags piled on top of one another, and every time the front loader comes back down after hoisting cargo to the truck’s rear, it lands with a great clanging jolt that causes the whole cab, including driver and passenger, to surge into the air.
Dunn is not distracted. “What Aristotle wrote thousands of years ago is still true,” he says (still shouting). “There should be reciprocity in government. The political structure should belong to the people. People have to participate, not look at the structure as if it’s against them.”
The first time you meet Ken Dunn, you know he grew up on a farm. Even at the age of 46, he has the youthful, energetic, rawboned look that betrays his rural Kansas roots. His work shirt, jeans, and shoes are well worn, and the tiny wire-rimmed spectacles he wears are so ill fitting that it’s obvious he’s not trying to make a fashion statement. Dunn would be very much at home at the controls of one of those gigantic corn pickers that can rumble the length of a field in a flash, gobbling up six rows at a time. Instead, he pilots a garbage truck. But he sees himself as no less engaged than the farmer in reaping valuable commodities from the earth. His fields are the alleys of Chicagoland. And if people have trouble understanding what he’s all about, he’s not about to get disappointed or bitter. They will all come around in time.
“Plato pointed out that the best leader in any society is the one who’s interested in the quality of common life,” he says, “one who leads by virtue, by morality, a person who has integrity and is above reproach. That’s why it’s not the loudest or richest or wiliest who makes the best leader, but one who inspires by a genuine concern to make life more livable.”
The truck clanks to a stop, and Dunn fairly leaps out of the cab. He comes back in a moment carrying a somewhat weatherbeaten but intact computer–keyboard, screen, and wiring. Some Oak Parker had deposited it in a garbage can. This really fires his enthusiasm.
“We’ll see if it works,” he says. “If does we could get maybe $50 for it. But even if it doesn’t, there’s electrical parts in there that are potentially reusable. And there’s small amounts of gold and silver in some of these old computers–just a few dollars worth but it’s reclaimable stuff.”
He’s quickly back at the wheel, pondering the deeper significance of this latest find: “Hegel pointed out that the alchemists–those who tried to turn base metals into gold, they were the real fathers of modern civilization. They didn’t succeed, but out of their efforts came modern science and technology. Then Hegel showed how society is doing just the opposite today of what the alchemists tried to do. We’re taking precious things and turning them into base things. We’re debasing gold and silver, throwing them away.”
Dunn’s eyes narrow and he raises a gloved hand from the steering wheel to emphasize a crucial point. “But you can’t throw things away,” he says, “because when you do, they come back to haunt you. They threaten life itself!
“I’m out here practicing the original alchemy, taking base things and trying to resurrect them–the way a sculptor tries to make something beautiful out of an odd-shaped piece of rock.”
For 16 years now, Ken Dunn has been sounding the alarm, pointing to the solution. And every director of Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation since 1971 has known him well and d heard his message more than once: The garbage festering out in your back alley, piling up in the landfills, burning in the nation’s incinerators, represents a “crisis” in the original meaning of that Greek word–a danger and an opportunity, a threat, yes, but with the possibility of some new breakthrough. Only recently have people become aware of the danger. Perhaps that awareness will lead to a seizing of the opportunity. But don’t hold your breath waiting in Chicago.
Ken Dunn is the director of the Resource Center, headquartered at 6217 S. Kimbark. Every week he and his 32 employees are involved in the collecting and processing of 500 tons of garbage–26,000 tons a year–from 17 neighborhoods and cities, including South Shore, Hyde Park, Beverly, Oak Park, and Oak Lawn. Instead of burying or burning the junk, Dunn and his cohorts extract aluminum, steel, glass, and paper from the mess and sell it at a profit to companies that recycle the materials.
On Saturdays and weeknights, Dunn dons another cap. He is a lecturer in the humanities at the University of Chicago. He leads discussions of the works of great thinkers like Descartes, Shakespeare, Aristotle, and, of course, Hegel. Professor Dunn, who is married and has three young children, does not work so hard because he needs the money–the Resource Center is doing very well–but because he needs the stimulation. “You have to keep subjecting your theories to correction and possible improvement,” he declares very earnestly. Then, too, there’s the need to arouse the public about the crisis. And getting people to gaze upon garbage with interest, possibly even affection, is no easy task.
During the last five years a somewhat sobering thought has been burbling to the surface of the American mind. For about 35 years we had assumed that when the end comes it will occur in a flash of nuclear devastation, reducing the planet (as Jonathan Schell put it in The Fate of the Earth) to a “republic of insects and grass.” Now the suspicion is dawning that civilization may terminate in a less dramatic fashion: the human species slowly suffocating in its own nonbiodegradable wastes.
As this mass rises inexorably, the resources of the earth shrink in direct proportion, and a host of other complications arise. Here is the way a committee of scientists put the matter some ten years ago in the massive Global 200 Report to the President (a report, incidentally, totally disregarded by the Reagan administration): “If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses . . . are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world’s people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.”
In sheer material output, no one can hold a candle to the United States. From the diaper on the newborn infant to the plastic bottle dripping an IV solution into the comatose senior citizen, American life is awash in disposable products. The throwaways include hundreds of newfangled gadgets our ancestors never even imagined: safety razors and blades, ballpoint pens, milk cartons, plastic dishes and utensils, aluminum cans, reams and reams of computer paper, even use-and-toss cameras. Experts say a 1988 American throws away 100 times as much material as did a person living in the mid-1800s.
Last year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the nation produced 160 million tons of solid waste, which averages out to 1,300 pounds a person, or about 3.5 pounds for each of us every day of the year. This represents an 80 percent increase during the last 25 years alone. Much of this material has a considerably longer life span than you do. The Styrofoam cup that held this morning’s coffee will still be around 300 years from now–in 2288!
Traditionally, garbage has been dumped in landfills on the outskirts of cities or in lightly populated rural areas. That was the easiest way of getting rid of useless and disgusting leftovers. Disposal has been, neither a well-respected nor highly paid profession, so haulers paid little or no attention to the environmental impact. But rising concern over buried nuclear wastes in the 1970s provoked a closer look at garbage burial grounds. It was soon discovered that in many places toxic chemicals had been oozing out of these landfills and into the groundwater for decades. They were not only nose- and eyesores, they were recognized for the first time as contributors to birth defects, cancer, and respiratory diseases.
Alarm bells rang, and a trash backlash movement, informally called NIMBY (Not in my backyard!), developed throughout the country. Cities and other municipalities began balking at becoming anyone’s dumping ground. As a result, new landfills today are few and far between, and the number of active ones has dropped from about 13,000 in 1980 to 9,000. More than half of these are expected to be filled to capacity or closed down for sanitation reasons during the next ten years. In impacted metropolitan areas the crunch will come sooner. Unless a new landfill is opened, Chicago will run out of space by 1992.
Dumping garbage in the ground had also been the cheapest method of disposal. For years the cost hovered around $3 a ton. But as space became scarcer and local and state governments got fussier about landfill operations, the price soared. New laws require landfill operators to line dumps with thick clay or polyethylene and install drainage systems to treat whatever leaks out before it gets into the groundwater. In some areas the cost of burying trash has soared to $100 a ton.
The spirit of NIMBY precludes shortcut burial solutions. Rhode Island passed a law closing its dumps to out-of-state garbage and even posted state troopers at the borders to intercept would-be smugglers. With dumps dwindling, New Jersey was forced to begin trucking household wastes to rural areas in the south, some 500 miles away. Philadelphia carted garbage all the way to Panama. Illinois enacted laws restricting new landfill development and demanded that the most populous areas come up with comprehensive waste-management plans that avoid landfill by 1991.
None of these local initiatives, however, served to catch the public imagination as much as the lonely, five-month voyage of the Islip, New York, garbage barge in 1987. Loaded with 3,200 tons of unwanted refuse, the barge attracted almost daily press and television coverage as it traveled 6,000 miles and endured rejection by six states and three foreign countries. “How Now Foul Scow?” asked one headline writer in the midst of the voyage. “Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind,” quipped another.
Yet beyond editorial preachments and gibes from comedians like Johnny Carson, there was something compellingly eerie about this fetid, fated vessel. More than mirth, it aroused a vague sense of dread in the public mind. Was this indeed an omen, a preview of the apocalypse? Was this pathetic creature a symbol of what lies ahead when irresponsible consumption runs rampant? The barge sparked a new concern about the garbage problem. In fact, the man who came up with the idea and financed the project, Lowell Herrelson, later said he was “proud of having a small part” in helping America recognize waste disposal “for the crisis it is.”
That was not his intention at the outset. Herrelson, an Alabama entrepreneur, approached Islip businessmen after learning that the landfill situation in that Long Island city, some 40 miles from New York City, was out of hand. In September 1986 the New York Environmental Commission had rejected Islip’s request to expand its teeming landfill, and a month later the panicky Islip town board declared that no more commercial waste could be buried in the landfill; it would thereafter be restricted for residential use only. With nowhere to put their waste, town businessmen became desperate. One restaurant owner reportedly paid his waitresses to allow him to leave his kitchen garbage in the alleys behind their homes.
Herrelson claimed he had arrangements to bury commercial garbage in North Carolina and Louisiana. The barge was accordingly rented and loaded, leaving New York on March 10. When it anchored off a coastal town in North Carolina, local residents protested vehemently, and Herrelson learned he didn’t have the agreement he thought he had. He didn’t have it in Louisiana either. As weeks and months dragged by, he negotiated in vain with Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, the Bahamas, Mexico, and Belize. But NIMBY had gone international, and Herrelson lost an estimated $1 million before the cargo was mercifully dispatched on September 1 in an incinerator in Brooklyn, only 30 miles from the place where the barge originally set sail.
The message from Islip was duly noted in Chicago. Kirsten Svare, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, said the incident convinced everyone that “waste disposal is the single largest problem facing municipal governments.”
Waste disposal is indeed a major problem in Chicago. No one seems to know exactly how much garbage is generated, although experts generally quote a figure of 2.5 million tons a year from residential, commercial, and institutional use. It is also authoritatively claimed (by the same experts) that it is generated at the rate of 9,000 tons a day. If that were so, the figure for the year would be almost 3.3 million tons, which is a lot more than 2.5 million. For consistency’s sake we will accept as the bottom line the 2.5 million estimate, which comes from the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. That amounts to 6,800 tons a day, or just about enough to fill the John Hancock Center from basement to observatory every three days.
The city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation collects a little less than half of this load–1.2 million tons (or 3,300 tons a day), and private haulers, who service multiunit residential buildings and businesses, take up the remaining 1.3 million tons (3,500 tons a day). The vast bulk of the messabout 83 percent–is buried in landfills, about 13 percent is incinerated, and a tiny 3 or 4 percent is recycled.
Getting rid of the garbage is therefore a costly proposition, representing the fastest-growing expense in the city budget. In 1987 the cost of disposing of 1.2 million tons was $19 million. This year the figure is $31 million. Next year the cost will be $52 million, and beyond that it is expected to continue rising at a rate of about 20 percent a year. And these figures don’t include the cost of collection. When that’s taken into account, the full cost for the coming year jumps to $104 million!
The major reason for these galloping sums is the disappearance of available dumping space (remember the barge). For years city garbage was trucked to the immense CID (Calumet Industrial District) landfill at 138th Street and the Calumet Expressway. In its prime, that great, festering mountain, run by Waste Management Inc., could accommodate 6,000 tons a day, or just about all the trash the city and private haulers could throw its way. No more. The mountain is swelling to near capacity. Waste Management last year cut the city back to less than 1,700 tons a day. As a result, Chicago has been forced to lug some of its garbage to distant dumping grounds in Michigan, Indiana, and downstate Illinois at a substantial increase in expense. In addition, the so-called tipping fees–the amount charged per ton by landfill operators to let trucks dump on their property–have skyrocketed.
The city of Chicago also disposes of about 900 tons a day at the Northwest Waste-to-Energy Plant at Kostner and Chicago Avenue. Burning garbage is an even costlier process than burying it, but since the steam produced at the plant provides electricity for the nearby Brach candy company, the city gets back about $1 million a year in revenue.
At one time, destroying solid waste in so-called “mass burn” public incinerators seemed the logical final solution. After all, burning garbage had long been the method of choice in much of Europe. However, burning advocates soon learned that U.S. garbage is different; it contains more plastic and toxic materials than European garbage. Not only did incinerators frequently break down, they often emitted ashes and fumes that had a devastating effect on the local air and population. When the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in with heavy safety regulations, many older garbage incinerators, including four in Chicago, were forced to close down. The so-called “fly ash” emitted from their chimneys was found to be loaded with toxic chemicals. The Northwest facility, the sole one still in operation in Chicago, has elaborate devices to catch the ash before it escapes. It complies with federal and state regulations, and plans have been long discussed about building other state-of-the-art incinerators that could virtually eliminate Chicago’s need for landfill.
Even though the concept of transforming garbage into energy remains appealing, incineration is not without its complications. A big question mark concerns disposal of the tons of ash produced by incineration. Ash from the Northwest incinerator is currently dumped in Stearns Quarry, a 22-acre hole in the ground at Halsted and 28th streets in the Bridgeport neighborhood. It is left there uncovered. A study last year by a Northwestern University environmental engineering professor found dangerous concentrations of lead, zinc, cadmium, and other toxic metals in the soil at sites near the quarry, including a public park and a high school. The concentration of lead alone was 200 times that of normal soil. To what extent, wonder environmentalists, is this carcinogenic stuff harming residents and possibly seeping into the groundwater? What’s more, some scientists, including Barry Commoner, are beginning to worry that even the most modern incinerators may be emitting intolerable amounts of dioxin, the cancer and birth-defect chemical used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.
Meanwhile, there’s the alternative that hasn’t really caught on yet in Chicago: recycling. Not that the concept lacks enthusiasts. The Coalition for Appropriate Waste Disposal, an amalgam that includes among its 18 member groups the Illinois Public Action Council and Citizens for a Better Environment, never misses an opportunity to extol recycling. Patrick Barry, a frequent coalition spokesman, put it this way at a recent meeting: “We live in a world with a finite amount of metals, a finite amount of petroleum, a finite amount of forest cover. We live in a world where the air can take only so much pollution before it grows ozone holes and acidic clouds, a world where the oceans and Lake Michigan can take only so much dumping of garbage before they begin spewing the waste back up on our beaches. We live in a world where the era of recycling has begun and we can never go back to the old way.”
When recycling activists look at the city of Chicago, they see more than an impacted concentration of consumers and concrete. They see, as Barry puts it, “a forest of pulp for new paper and a mine for glass and aluminum and steel and tin and plastic and organic matter. And we need miners to extract the material, processing centers to prepare it for market, factories to remanufacture it, salespeople to sell the new products, and investors to finance the new companies. . . . We’ve got to see that this isn’t a garbage problem. It’s an economic development problem.”
Seen in this light, recycling is a marvelous opportunity to salvage both wasted materials from our alleys and wasted lives from the unemployment lines.
It’s already happening on a substantial scale elsewhere. Thanks to a major cooperative push from the public and private sectors, the city of Seattle now recycles almost 28 percent of its refuse and sees 50 percent as a realistic goal. Portland, Oregon, recycles 24 percent, Camden, New Jersey, 30 percent, and Woodbury, New Jersey, an astounding 52 percent. Several cities, hard-pressed Philadelphia among them, have instituted mandatory recycling programs.
Yet Chicago, despite a long history of pious talk, still recycles only about 3 percent of its residential and commercial waste. And the person responsible for much of that is an unsubsidized, unorthodox junk man, Ken Dunn, who preaches more by doing than by talking and who hopes the day of general awakening will come before the day of grim reckoning. “I guess the environment is really my religion,” he says. “As I see it, it’s a privilege for us to live on this planet. We can’t just use up what we have and toss it. People’s consciousness has to change so they see that.”
Dunn comes by his compulsions naturally. Some 50 years ago his father bought 600 acres of Kansas farmland that was considered of little value because it had lost most of its topsoil to dust storms. By sheer determination, the elder Dunn massaged the soil and rotated crops until his land regained much of its old vitality. Ken Dunn’s mother died when he was four, so he and his brother, one year older, were raised almost exclusively by their father.
“If I was an environmentalist then, I was an inarticulate one,” he says. “I remember once when my father was recovering from a heart attack. He was standing by the side of the field watching while I was running the combine. I heard a strange noise in the motor and got down to check it out. I walked all the way around the back of the machine to get at the engine. My father came over and asked why I did that. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I realized I took a roundabout route so I wouldn’t have to walk on a row of wheat. He said to me ‘Ken, you’ve got a sensitivity to machines and plants and farm animals. If that carries over into the rest of your life, you’ll be OK.'”
Dunn attended Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, where his cast of mind was whetted by Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. After graduation, Dunn hoped to go on to graduate school, but lacking funds, he joined the Peace Corps instead and spent a two-year hitch in Brazil. In a remote village he had his first success in changing the useless into the usable.
In the wooded hills above the village ran an abandoned irrigation canal, but the peasants had no way to tap this potential energy source. Working with a village leader who had a natural bent for things mechanical and an abundance of goodwill, Dunn developed a pipeline of hollowed-out logs to carry the water down to the village, where it supplied the power for a sawmill. For the first time, he says, these villagers had an experience of improving their lot by “harvesting” the forest around them.
On his return to this country in 1968, Dunn moved to Chicago with a conditional acceptance into the graduate program of philosophy at the University of Chicago. After all those years of breathing relatively pure Kansas (and Brazilian) air, he was unprepared for the city’s turgid ozone. “I decided right away I’d either have to do something about all this pollution or I couldn’t stay here,” he says. “No way should breathing ruin your health.”
He started sniffing around the Hyde Park community to familiarize himself with the sources of the problem: black smoke from coal-burning apartment complexes, ashes spewed out of alley incinerators, exhaust belching from street traffic, trash piling up in gutters. And somehow his determination to upgrade the urban environment became integrated with his renewed plunge into philosophy.
His mentor at the U. of C. was Richard P. McKeon, then the leading figure in its philosophy department. A master of classical thought and classical language, McKeon was an intimidating figure, not accustomed to being crossed by students. So he was more than a little startled when Dunn declared that he had no background in Latin and Greek and did not plan to start studying them now. “The problems of the world are too pressing for me to spend years on language,” he told McKeon. “I’ll just have to trust your translation of the writings of the great thinkers.”
Apparently impressed by the young man’s candor and earnestness, McKeon took Dunn under his wing. During the next four years he wrestled with the profound insights of ancient and modern greats, but always with an eye to their application in the nitty-gritty world in which he moved and tried to breathe. McKeon, an incurable theorist, hardly knew what to make of him.
Reading Hegel, Dunn was persuaded that serious societal problems can only be overcome when people are empowered to find their own solutions; solutions, however outstanding, imposed from the outside will not have permanent results. So in his spare time, Dunn felt empowered to gather up some of the neighborhood trash–a direct and personal response to a real societal issue. He scooted around in his old Volkswagen van intercepting unwanted cardboard boxes and packaging at local stores before the waste could be thrown in the incinerator. He soon learned that when the VW was packed tight, he had just about one ton. He would drop it off at a Hyde Park drop-off center and earn $45 for his effort.
Several fellow students joined him in the enterprise, and they formed an organization called “Eco-Sex.” The name sounded pretty risque for a club of part-time junk men, but Dunn says it referred to their shared dream of a world to come with ecological stability and sexual equality. In time, the scavenging operation expanded. Businesses and offices were happy to unload used cartons and computer paper on him. Within months he was up to a ton a week, then two, then three.
By 1972 Dunn had to make a choice: whether to continue moving toward a doctorate in philosophy and a career in academia or to hurl himself professionally and full-time into the world of garbage. He chose the latter, seeing it as a simple preference of practice over theory and in no way a rejection of his training. Indeed, he sought a part-time teaching post at the university (one he has maintained ever since), and he maintained a deep relationship with McKeon until the philosopher’s death in 1985.
For several years, Dunn served as recycling director for the Hyde Park Community Conference, which was attempting to model a practical recycling program at the time. When the conference lost its drop-off center in 1974 and canceled the program, Dunn went independent. He sent a letter to friends and supporters asking for contributions as “an investment in the future and in a new order in this city.” He pledged that his project would not peter out as so many other noble efforts had. The campaign raised $16,000, Dunn launched the Resource Center, and he has been the Chicago area’s premier recycling leader ever since.
From a modest 40 tons a week of paper, cans, and bottles at the start, Dunn’s many-faceted business now gathers and processes 500 tons a week. Besides its headquarters, the Resource Center has a materials-processing yard at 71st and Dorchester, a beehive of activity where paper is stacked in bins, aluminum cans are compacted into smelter-ready cubes, glass bottles are crushed, and even yard waste is composted for eventual use as fertilizer. The center operates three trucks that run innumerable routes in cooperating neighborhoods, and it has scattered drop-off centers where people can deposit their material. Dunn and his associates have assisted community groups in Uptown, on the west side, and in several suburbs to set up their own modest recycling programs.
There is no doubt that a market exists for yesterday’s useless junk. A paper mill in Alsip, for example, gobbles up tons of wastepaper, which it turns into newsprint and sells to the Chicago Sun-Times. Twenty percent of the glass produced by some leading glass manufacturers now comes from recycled sources. More than 36 billion aluminum cans were recycled in the United States in 1987. And new techniques have made it possible to recycle even milk jugs, soda bottles, and other plastic items long considered hopeless.
Even the Reagan administration, which had provided virtually no assistance or encouragement to solid waste disposal, has recently gotten into the act. As if it were an amazing discovery, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed in late September (as the presidential campaign heated up) that the country “is facing a crisis in managing the staggering amounts of trash it produces.” He said the EPA intends to use the $15 million allocated by Congress for the solid waste problem to upgrade research on recycling. The aim is to cut the garbage glut by 25 percent by 1992.
Clearly, the need is there, the markets are there, the technology is there.
So why isn’t the city of Chicago beating a path to the, door of Ken Dunn? “That’s a good question,” says Dunn, who has never been accused of keeping his activities secret. “At least once a year I’ve managed to meet with the head of Streets and Sanitation. Been doing that for 16 years now, and I’ve been through five or six different commissioners. I explain how we’ve got a system that works and how it could be set up citywide and how it would save millions and create new jobs. He’ll usually give me a pleasant smile and rub his hands together and say ‘Well done, young man, and how many tons did you say you handle?’ Well, we’re doing about 500 tons a week. He smiles again and, becomes sort of condescending. ‘You see,’ he says, ‘we do maybe 4,500 tons a day!’ And that was the usual attitude: we welcome youthful and novel ideas, but garbage is big business in Chicago and you don’t understand that.”
After the election of Harold Washington in 1983, Dunn admits, city officials warmed a bit to his ideas, and they are still listening for the first time to other leaders of the Coalition for Appropriate Waste Disposal and its allies. Phone calls are returned and minor courtesies extended. It gives Dunn hope. But concrete progress has been as slow as the voyage of the barge from Islip. And at this point 1989 does not look like a breakthrough year. The level of close cooperation needed among city agencies and between the private and public sectors is in short supply in Chicago.
Consider first the city’s well-paid, unionized garbage haulers. They are not excited about the prospect of losing business and jobs as private haulers like Dunes Resource Center grab a bigger share of the trash. If there is to be recycling, they want to do it all. On the other hand, as Dunn points out, substantial savings are possible only if the private firms are utilized, since they can operate a truck and crew for about $100 a day, while a city truck and crew cost about $500. The private firms would expect a “diversion credit”–say $35 a ton–for the garbage they collect, but here too the city would realize big savings, since it’s already paying up to $80 a ton in tipping fees for the refuse it buries in landfills. If a cooperative city/private plan could be designed, it would require strict oversight by a tough garbage czar.
Consider, too, the issue of public education and enforcement. Motivating Chicagoans to separate glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic throwaways and to then place the proper items in the proper alley receptacles would seem to be a daunting task. What works reasonably well in a high-income, single-family-dwelling neighborhood like Beverly may not work so smoothly in a low-income, crowded area of multiunit apartment buildings.
In addition, the giants of the disposal industry like Waste Management Inc. (which has its international headquarters in Oak Brook) are still not ready to abandon the old, largely discredited landfill option. In fact, says William Plunkett, director of public relations for Waste Management, the firm is turning away from incineration as too expensive and too questionable environmentally. While Waste Management supports the recycling idea, the company views its potential as far more limited than advocates like Dunn and Patrick Barry view it. Right now Waste Management is pressing the city to let it develop a new 140-acre landfill adjacent to the soon-to-be-overflowing CID site on the far south side. “Integrated land management,” says Plunkett, is the real wave of the future. In nearby communities. like Northbrook and Waukegan, ingenious technicians have found ways to produce usable electrical power from the methane gas leaking out of old landfills.
Besides all these obstacles, the old bureaucratic bind at City Hall complicates everything. Before Harold Washington died, he endorsed the findings of the Mayor’s Task Force on Solid Waste Disposal. Funds were allocated and a plan was developed for the mandatory pickup of paper, glass, and metal for recycling purposes in ten wards by the end of 1988 (which ten were not identified). “At last!” rejoiced the Chicago Tribune editorially. “Make it mandatory and give the lion’s share to private contractors who not only know what they’re doing but can save money in the process.” Nothing happened. Last February Mayor Sawyer assured everyone that the plan was alive and well and would be operating by December. But nothing will be operating in December, and the prospects for city-approved recycling aren’t much better for December 1989 or 1990.
Alderman Lawrence Bloom (Fifth Ward) assails the “very sorry record” of the city on this point as he campaigns for mayor. “If past history is any indication, we’re not going to get anything through the budget this time either,” he told a group of recycling supporters in September. “I haven’t seen the will for it. No one wants to demand that the necessary people make a commitment.”
Speaking to the same group, Leroy Bannister, who is the mayor’s “assistant for infrastructure,” admitted “we have not moved fast enough,” and he expressed a firm resolve to mend the city’s ways. “These issues must be addressed jointly,” he declared. “I want to hear proposals from you. I need that, I really do! . . . We have a crisis and it’s important that we work very hard and very fast to develop cost-effective alternatives to landfill.”
Taking him at his word, the Coalition for Appropriate Waste Disposal deluged Bannister’s office with very specific proposals. What would work very nicely, said the coalition, would be a $9.6-million budget appropriation for recycling programs, with half going to the city’s garbage-hauling operation and half going to private firms. This would provide for a 14-ward collection program beginning early next year. However, when the tentative city budget was released in October, only $3.4 million’ was set aside for a recycling program, and it was slated to be run entirely by Department of Streets and Sanitation crews. It will operate in only four wards. Meanwhile, a $500,000 pittance was set aside for possible diversion credits to private groups like Dunes. (Funds also have been set aside for this in previous city budgets, but the money was never spent.)
Dunn, Barry, and others complained that the whole thing didn’t make sense. A group of eight concerned aldermen then scheduled a’ meeting in late October to iron out difficulties. “We’re behind the times,” said Alderman Bernard Hansen (44th Ward), organizer of the group. He promised to quickly develop “a formula that will appease everyone” without any loss of jobs. But on the meeting day only two aldermen (Hansen and Bloom) showed up, and once again nothing happened.
Disappointed, coalition spokesman Barry says more pressure will be applied to get the city off square one.
Despite his past experiences with Chicago officials, Ken Dunn remains optimistic. “I see hope,” he says with the sober patience of one who has studied the great minds of the ages. “We’re witnessing a gradual change of consciousness, an awareness that we can’t expend the planet’s resources indefinitely. You don’t see a change in the broad spectrum of the population yet. You will.”
Meanwhile, he will continue on his grueling 13-hour-a-day schedule, dividing his time between office management, truck driving, and shoveling garbage at the processing yard. “I agree with Kierkegaard,” he says. “He believed that purity of heart is the ability to narrow your desires, to center in on one goal, to will just one thing and will it well.”
Garbage Through the Ages: A Brief History
Very Long Ago: Adam and Eve bite into fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately confronted by an accusing God, they toss the incriminating evidence away, thus becoming the first human litterers and setting an example for their descendants.
Prehistoric Aeons: Cave people live very economically though somewhat sloppily. When an animal is killed, just about everything is eaten, used for clothing, or fashioned into utensils. The rest is pitched out of the cave. But not to worry; everything is biodegradable.
3300 BC: As civilizations spread, Minoans dig compost pits near the city of Koulare on Crete, where organic wastes can be dumped and rendered less potent.
500 BC: Composting is not the universal answer. City officials in Athens issue an edict prohibiting the throwing of garbage into the streets.
300 BC: Garbage dumps become popular on the outskirts of many cities in the Greco-Roman world. Jerusalem makes use of a large one called Gehenna (which Jesus later said looked like hell).
100 AD: Although aqueducts carry fresh cold water hundreds of miles to the city of Rome, solid wastes are a growing problem. Large, open pits are dug and everything is thrown in, from chicken bones to the carcasses of hippos killed in the Colosseum.
200 AD: The first publicly paid trash collectors appear in the cities of the Roman Empire. They shovel debris off the streets and haul it to the pits or sometimes dump it in convenient vacant lots.
600 AD: The Dark Ages set in and the peasants throw everything including wet nasties into the streets, where diminishing numbers of collectors make the rounds when they’re not recovering from the pestilence, burying victims of disease, or repelling the Huns.
1100 AD: The Crusades appeal to Europeans’ religious fervor; they are popular too, say historians, because they allow able-bodied citizens to get away from it all and go dump on the Saracens.
1388: The English parliament passes a law authorizing severe prison sentences for those who pollute rivers and lakes with “filth and garbage.”
1596: The civilized world is greatly relieved when Sir John Harrington invents the water closet. Soon after, the Chinese make a contribution of their own: toilet paper. Together, these two developments alter the flow of history.
1750: The Industrial Revolution introduces mass production, high employment, urbanization, the labor movement, and gigantic concentrations of factory waste unimagined by previous generations.
1870: The world’s first garbage incinerator, called a crematory, begins operation in England, and the United States gets one the very next year.
1910: Landfills become popular ways of enlarging urban areas. Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, describes an immigrant section of Chicago created entirely out of garbage. “There were no pavements–there were mountains and valleys and rivers, gullies and ditches, and great hollows full of stinking green water” and a “strange, fetid odor which assailed one’s nostrils, a ghastly odor of all the dead things of the universe.”
1942: Recycling becomes respectable during World War II. The government needs old metal, rubber, leather, even tinfoil for the war effort. Patriotic citizens find new ways to reuse scarce items.
1948: With the end of the war, the public is hungry for more and more of everything. The development of cheap plastics launches a packaging boom and the proliferation of millions of nondegradable but eminently breakable products. Meanwhile, planned obsolescence ensures an ever more towering mountain of old refrigerators, cars, tires, and stoves.
1970: The ecology movement comes of age. Studies indicate that the earth, air, and water cannot tolerate the strain indefinitely. Legislatures pass laws, environmentalists propose programs, and many hail the Age of Aquarius.
1988: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announces that “we have been avoiding too long the issue of reducing the amounts of throwaways we produce” and it’s time we do something. Meanwhile, the national trash heap grows: 160 million tons produced this year, 190 million tons projected by the year 2000. More than 80 percent of this trash is still buried, 10 percent burned, and less than 10 percent recycled.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.