Founding father of Chicago recycling says city damaged his popular North Side center, but city says it was cleaning up (2022)

For Ken Dunn, the tracks told the story.

Dunn, a leader in Chicago recycling for four decades, arrived at work on the morning of Aug. 3 to find chewed-up curbs and heavy tire tracks in the parking lot next to his North Side drop-off center for glass, metals, paper and plastic.

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The big metal cargo containers Dunn uses to haul 30 tons of recyclables a week had been pummeled by heavy machinery, he said, their doors broken and holes punched in their walls.

Dunn said carts, bins, ladders and tarps were missing, as were $5,000 worth of tools. Someone had even removed the shelves that held free books and toys for children.

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Dunn surmised that intruders had rammed big tractors into his cargo containers and taken or discarded the missing items, costing him $20,000 he doesn’t have.

And he thinks he knows who did it.

Founding father of Chicago recycling says city damaged his popular North Side center, but city says it was cleaning up (1)

What happened in the early morning hours at Dunn’s North Park Village Recycling Station is still in dispute with Dunn, president of the not-for-profit Resource Center, saying that Chicago Streets and Sanitation workers did the damage, and the city saying workers were just cleaning up a site that had been the subject of numerous complaints.

What is clear is that the 40-year-old recycling station is now struggling.

During a recent visit, Dunn pointed out bags of plastic bottles and jugs that were piling up. A volunteer said she worried that Dunn, 80, is working too hard as he tries to catch up, and Dunn said he’s recently started looking into emergency loans.

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“We’re operating and open, but it kills us economically to have that loss,” Dunn said.

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation issued a written statement saying, “After numerous complaints from residents concerning the garbage and debris at the North Park Recycling Center, the City cleaned the property on August 3, 2022.”

Dunn called that version of events “amazing.”

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“Sometimes you clean with a broom and dustpan — and sometimes you clean with a big tractor that crushes most things you knock around. Bad choice on their part,” Dunn said dryly.

Founding father of Chicago recycling says city damaged his popular North Side center, but city says it was cleaning up (2)

In response to Dunn’s specific complaints, Streets and Sanitation said, “The North Park Village Recycling Station is located on city-owned land. The cleaning was completed during normal work hours, and no items were damaged or stolen during the cleaning process.”

The department also offered “before” photos that showed some trash or unbundled recyclables at the site, some big green plastic bags of material piled along a fence and some large items that appeared to have been dumped, such as an old mattress.

Illegal dumping has been a problem at the site, Dunn said, and he had requested a no-dumping sign from the city the day before the incident.

During a recent visit to the recycling station, materials waiting to be recycled appeared to be clean and there were no smells. The metal bins were weathered — one has been in use since 1971 — and the lettering on them was hand-painted. Dozens of garbage bags filled with plastics were stacked 6 feet high along a fence. Dunn said plastics were piling up as he scrambled to repair the Aug. 3 damage.

The total effect was a bit ramshackle, but cheerful and organized, with volunteer Linda Young, a retiree, saying Dunn has a strong local following.

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“He’s amazing,” she said. “Many people help him, love him, because of what he does. As you can see, we bring our stuff here because he cares about the environment.”

Founding father of Chicago recycling says city damaged his popular North Side center, but city says it was cleaning up (3)

This is not the first time that Dunn, a Kansas farmer’s son who studied for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago, has faced a setback in his quest to make Chicago a greener place.

He’s been fighting a sometimes lonely battle ever since he started transforming vacant South Side lots into community gardens in the 1970s.

When Chicago began its first municipal recycling program under Mayor Harold Washington, Dunn ran a showcase pilot project in the Beverly neighborhood on the Southwest Side. At one point, the Resource Center reported that about 60% of Beverly residents were separating newspapers, aluminum cans and other recyclable material from their garbage and leaving them at the curb in blue boxes, according to The Associated Press.

Dunn said some city officials tried to end his recycling contract when Washington died in 1987. He went to court and won, but he suspects he made enemies along the way.

In the early 1990s, city officials revoked his permit to recycle at the North Park Village Recycling Station site, Dunn said, but public support — and periodic assists from public figures — allowed him to stay open.

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Among those who came to Dunn’s defense over the years was Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who championed the North Park Village Recycling Station during a 1997 debate on whether to replace it with more parking spaces for a gymnastics center.

The center, Kass wrote, is “a little bit of messy magic and the kind of special place that deserves saving.”

Through it all, Dunn developed a wide-ranging portfolio of sustainability projects, encompassing composting, recycling, food recovery and urban farming.

“Ken has been an important player in green initiatives in Chicago for the last few decades,” said Sadhu Johnston, the city’s chief environmental officer from 2005 to 2009.

Founding father of Chicago recycling says city damaged his popular North Side center, but city says it was cleaning up (4)

Johnston said he couldn’t comment on the current controversy because he doesn’t know the details, but when he was in Chicago, Dunn was a role model: “He was pursuing really innovative approaches, and he was on the ground doing really important work.”

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Johnston added that “from what I can tell, Ken works at the grassroots and works with very little resources, and the result of that can be messy. I can understand at the scale he’s working that the city would want to make sure that it’s done in a way that isn’t creating an issue for (neighbors).”

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The Tribune named Dunn the greenest man in Chicago in 2008, based on a detailed analysis of his personal carbon footprint. Dunn produced only 3,800 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, as compared with the 44,000 pounds produced by the average American, according to an analysis performed for the Tribune.

In 2007, Chicago Magazine ran a profile with the headline, “Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant: Ken Dunn embodies an American ideal of intelligence, an extraordinary melding of farmer and philosopher. He just might be the smartest man in the city. And he grows magnificent tomatoes.”

Dunn’s hair was gray, his face lined during a recent interview, but his blue eyes shone as brightly as ever as he spoke about an imitation prairie he built at an urban farm in Washington Park.

There’s a clay liner so that water doesn’t drain away from the roots of the plants, with highly absorbent wood chips and compost above. Even with today’s high levels of precipitation, there’s never any runoff, Dunn said.

“I even got a fine from the city for building this farm without stormwater drainage,” he said with a chuckle. “They wanted that stormwater — why would they want the stormwater? I want it for my plants.”

The compost and wood chips hold water, so even after a month of no rain, you don’t have to water plants with roots longer than 4 inches.

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And, in an era when climate change is bringing heavier rains and concerns about flooded basements, Dunn sees another potential benefit: “We can’t keep building the sewers bigger because it’s going to get worse, but we could make every park and every backyard (an imitation prairie that keeps) rainwater where it falls.”

One of his favorite topics is recycling itself, and specifically, his objections to single-stream recycling, in which consumers don’t have to sort their recyclables. Single stream is convenient and may encourage broader participation, but contamination can render materials unrecyclable.

Founding father of Chicago recycling says city damaged his popular North Side center, but city says it was cleaning up (5)

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“Would you rather be told you recycle — even though you might not know it’s being recycled — or would you rather be clear that it’s absolutely being recycled?” he asked.

Founding father of Chicago recycling says city damaged his popular North Side center, but city says it was cleaning up (6)

As Dunn spoke, people wandered in, dropping off plastic jugs and metal cans.

“I love this place. It’s awesome,” said Rick Ratliff, 53, of Old Irving Park, who said he’s been bringing Dunn his recyclables for 30 years. “You know, I really like coming here and making sure things are going to get recycled.”

Still, Young, the volunteer, got wistful when she talked about what used to be. She spread her arms to indicate the size of the “free stuff” shelf that disappeared Aug. 3. It had been armpit high and 5 feet wide, she said, and local teachers would sometimes come by with their classes and let excited children pick out free books.

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There were carts and pallets with wheels to make visits easier for customers, she said. There were neat stacks of newspapers, piled to just the right height in giant metal containers.

“I just wish with all my heart and soul we would have had the pictures to show you how organized it was,” Young said.

nschoenberg@chicagotribune.com

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FAQs

Does the city of Chicago actually recycle? ›

Residential Recycling Drop Off Center

Use the City's Residential Recycling Drop-off Centers to recycle the same full range of materials accepted in the Blue Cart Recycling Program, including paper, plastics, glass and cardboard.

How much of Chicago recycling is actually recycled? ›

Chicago's Recycling Rate Remains Stuck At Less Than 9%, As Focus Turns to Composting.

What percentage of recycling actually gets recycled? ›

Only 5% to 6% of the 46 million tons of plastic waste generated annually in the U.S. gets recycled, a big dip from the last estimate of nearly 9% just a few years ago, according to a new study by two environmental groups focused on creating awareness around plastic pollution.

What happens to recycling in Chicago? ›

The Recycling Process

The materials collected by your hauler are transported to a processing center for sorting. Processing centers use various methods for separating the cardboard, paper, bottles and cans. First, the materials are loaded onto conveyor belts where a special screen removes the cardboard.

What happens if I put non recyclables in the recycling? ›

If you put the wrong items in your recycling bin, they will be sent for disposal and will not be recycled. Sometimes things like nappies and food waste could actually spoil the rest of the recyclables and mean a whole load may need to be disposed of.

Where does Chicago dump its garbage? ›

The 550-acre Livingston landfill, near Pontiac, Illinois, is owned and managed by Republic Services. Transfer trucks lumber up to the top of the active part of the landfill. It doesn't take long for the trucks to dump their 25 tons into the pit. As soon as it lets loose, the heavy equipment below takes over.

Can you recycle Styrofoam in Chicago? ›

polystyrene / styrofoam

Clean styrofoam (except packaging peanuts) can be dropped off for recycling.

Does Chicago recycle #5 plastic? ›

Cardboard (flatten all boxes) Plastic bottles and containers (# 1-5, 7 accepted)

Does the state of Illinois recycle? ›

Our current recycling programs divert over 7 million tons of useful materials from landfills and save enough energy to heat and light 578,000 homes. Each year, recycling in Illinois reduces water pollution by 21,500 tons of various contaminants and reduces air pollution by 131,000 tons of various contaminants each.

Are plastic bags really recycled? ›

Plastic bags are 100% recyclable

Most bags are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), or linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) which can be recycled with specialist machines.

Do recyclables actually get recycled? ›

No, 79% of your recycling does not end up in a landfill. This highest estimate for how much recycling ends up in the trash was a third. The lowest was 15% in Northern Virginia.

Does glass actually get recycled? ›

Glass can be melted repeatedly to produce the same product and is 100 percent recyclable. The technology for recycling glass is relatively simple.

Can you recycle shredded paper in Chicago? ›

Shredded paper is not accepted in Chicago's recycling program but it can be recycled at citywide shredding events and it can also be reused.

Where does recycling go in Illinois? ›

Instead of being dumped in landfills, the recyclable waste is taken to Midwest Fiber in Normal for sorting and processing. Midwest Fiber, a family business which started in 1990 with only two employees, is now central Illinois' largest full-service recycler. Truckloads of recyclable waste are dumped into a huge pile.

How do you dispose of light bulbs in Chicago? ›

You can take used CFLs to the household chemicals and computer recycling Facility located at 1150 N. North Branch. You can also take them to any home depot. Visit www.homedepot.com to find a store near you.

Can olive oil bottles be recycled? ›

Since most oil bottles are made from number one plastic, which is clear, they are commonly accepted at the recycling plant.

What happens to the plastic that Cannot be recycled? ›

One of four things happens to plastic after you're done with it. If it's not recycled—and it's usually not—it is landfilled, incinerated, or littered.

Can you throw shoes in the bin? ›

While it's tempting to just throw them in the bin and replace them, there are better options. Recycling shoes offers a number of benefits over throwing them in the bin. With very little effort, recycling your shoes can: Reducing landfill waste.

Can I throw away a couch in Chicago? ›

Call 3-1-1 and request Bulky Item Pick Up Service. The City will pick up oversized items including furniture, major appliances, and mattresses, for free. For refrigerators and freezers pickup, the doors must be removed before setting them out.

Can you put furniture in the alley in Chicago? ›

Furniture or other large items that block access to alleys or sidewalks may result in tickets. If your item is especially big (larger than a couch), we recommend calling our office ahead of item, so we let Streets and Sanitation know to expect the item.

Is Chicago built on a landfill? ›

It has almost entirely been built with landfill in Lake Michigan. Additionally a huge area is used underground. Underneath Grant Park are about 9,000 parking spaces, a music theater, fieldhouses, restrooms, walkways and other facilities.

Why is Styrofoam not recyclable? ›

There are two reasons polystyrene (EPS) is not recyclable or allowed in recycle bins: density and contamination. Polystyrene foam is 95% air so it is not cost-effective to store or ship. It is often contaminated with food or drink, and it is difficult to clean because it is so porous.

Can Styrofoam be recycled? ›

No, Styrofoam can't be put into household recycling but if you have large offcuts in good condition, you could try offering them on online selling sites such as Gumtree or Facebook Marketplace for insulation projects.

Can I use white bags for recycling? ›

Plastic and tins: white bag

You can recycle tins, cans, empty aerosols, clean foil, plastic bottles, tubs, punnets, pots and trays (including black), cartons (Tetra Pak), and flower pots using your white bag.

Can you recycle shampoo bottles? ›

Recycling from the bathroom

Most of us recycle shampoo and conditioner bottles, but don't forget to recycle items such as: Bathroom cleaners - rinse and replace the trigger spray. Bleach bottles - empty and replace the lid. Liquid soap bottles - empty, rinse and remove the pump dispenser (throw pump into the rubbish ...

Are plastic soda rings recyclable? ›

Six-Pack Beverage Rings

Like so many plastic packaging materials, they are often disposed of carelessly, polluting public spaces and waterways and endangering wildlife. The rings are made of plastic #4 (LDPE) and can be recycled in programs that accept low-density polyethylene resin.

Can you throw away paint cans in Chicago? ›

Let the empty paint can dry, then recycle the empty can. Dry it up: Use kitty litter, shredded paper or sawdust to absorb the remaining paint, or pour the paint into a bag. After it dries, throw the bag or absorbant material away and recycle the empty can.

Can you recycle glass bottles in Illinois? ›

Glass. Most clear, brown and green glass items used for food and beverage items are recyclable and can be broken down and made into other glass products. However, some glass items like ceramic dishware and ovenware, heat-resistant glass, mirror or window glass, or crystal are not recyclable. Plastic.

Is bubble wrap recyclable in Illinois? ›

Bubble wrap is completely recyclable, but cannot be accepted curbside or grouped in with the rest of your home and business recycling. Your recycling bin is probably full of what is known as hard plastics: bottles, containers, jugs, and more.

Are paper towels recyclable? ›

Paper hand towels and tissues are a good example of contamination. Although they're made out of paper fibres they cannot be recycled. The fibres are not suitable to be pulped and tissues have often been in contact with moisture and organic matter.

Are Walmart bags recycled? ›

"We have had a program in place at all our stores for several years where customers can drop off their plastic bags for recycling," says Walmart spokeswoman Anne Hatfield. "We send the bags to a recycler.

Are plastic strawberry containers recyclable? ›

Containers—Most single-use plastic containers, such as yogurt or fruit cups, are just fine to go in household recycling, as long as they're clean and empty.

Which states recycle the most? ›

State Rankings
OVERALL RANKStateRecycling Rank
1Connecticut7
2Vermont38
3Minnesota12
4California4
47 more rows
Sep 9, 2022

What are three examples of items that Cannot be recycled? ›

Non-recyclable items
  • Garbage.
  • Food waste.
  • Food-tainted items (such as: used paper plates or boxes, paper towels, or paper napkins)
  • Ceramics and kitchenware.
  • Windows and mirrors.
  • Plastic wrap.
  • Packing peanuts and bubble wrap.
  • Wax boxes.

What country recycles the most? ›

Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world. The nation recycles an impressive 66.1% of its waste.

Why did we stop using glass bottles? ›

Eventually, the glass bottle was overshadowed by the plastic model, as it was much easier and less expensive to transport plastic safely. Plastic bottles were considered to be more lightweight, resistant to breakage, and therefore superior in every way when compared to glass bottles.

What do people do wrong when recycling? ›

Common Recycling Mistakes
  • Thinking plastic caps are not recyclable. ...
  • Throwing dirty cardboard and paper in with clean recycling. ...
  • You don't recycle glossy paper. ...
  • Not sorting properly. ...
  • Including plastic bags with your recycling. ...
  • Not taking advantage of your local recycling program. ...
  • Not doing your recycling homework.

Can glass be turned back into sand? ›

Finely-crushed glass is basically a pure form of sand. When you grind down crushed glass to a fine powder, the difference between glass and sand is negligible at best; natural sand is made of quartz crystals of silicon dioxide and glass is the non-crystalline, amorphous form of silicon dioxide.

Does Chicago recycle plastic? ›

Residents in multi-unit buildings can recycle many materials, including paper, cardboard, plastics, glass and aluminum, by establishing a source-separated recycling program with their waste hauler.

Does Cook County recycle? ›

There are several locations within Cook County where recyclable items can be dropped off. Click on the following links to view what's accepted and location hours. There are a number of Brush and Tree Disposal Sites throughout the county.

How much waste is recycled in Illinois? ›

We generate approximately 19 million tons of garbage a year, which is 23% more waste per capita than the average state in the U.S. Sadly, only 37% of this waste material is ever recycled.

Can you recycle shredded paper in Chicago? ›

Shredded paper is not accepted in Chicago's recycling program but it can be recycled at citywide shredding events and it can also be reused.

Are plastic soda rings recyclable? ›

Six-Pack Beverage Rings

Like so many plastic packaging materials, they are often disposed of carelessly, polluting public spaces and waterways and endangering wildlife. The rings are made of plastic #4 (LDPE) and can be recycled in programs that accept low-density polyethylene resin.

Are milk cartons recyclable in Chicago? ›

Office paper and file folders. Newspaper and inserts. Beverage cartons (milk, juice, soy cartons)

Can you recycle shampoo bottles? ›

Recycling from the bathroom

Most of us recycle shampoo and conditioner bottles, but don't forget to recycle items such as: Bathroom cleaners - rinse and replace the trigger spray. Bleach bottles - empty and replace the lid. Liquid soap bottles - empty, rinse and remove the pump dispenser (throw pump into the rubbish ...

Can Styrofoam be recycled? ›

No, Styrofoam can't be put into household recycling but if you have large offcuts in good condition, you could try offering them on online selling sites such as Gumtree or Facebook Marketplace for insulation projects.

Can I use white bags for recycling? ›

Plastic and tins: white bag

You can recycle tins, cans, empty aerosols, clean foil, plastic bottles, tubs, punnets, pots and trays (including black), cartons (Tetra Pak), and flower pots using your white bag.

Is Styrofoam recyclable in Illinois? ›

DO NOT place Styrofoam, polystyrene plastics: i.e. foam cups; foam to go containers; foam meat trays; foam egg cartons; foam coolers; foam product packaging or foam packing peanuts in your recycling.

Is bubble wrap recyclable in Illinois? ›

Bubble wrap is completely recyclable, but cannot be accepted curbside or grouped in with the rest of your home and business recycling. Your recycling bin is probably full of what is known as hard plastics: bottles, containers, jugs, and more.

Can you recycle glass bottles in Illinois? ›

Glass. Most clear, brown and green glass items used for food and beverage items are recyclable and can be broken down and made into other glass products. However, some glass items like ceramic dishware and ovenware, heat-resistant glass, mirror or window glass, or crystal are not recyclable. Plastic.

How many landfills are in Illinois? ›

State-Level Project and Landfill Totals from the LMOP Database
StateOperational ProjectsAll Landfills
Illinois (August 2022) (xlsx) (52.64 KB)1695
Indiana (August 2022) (xlsx) (48.78 KB)2289
Iowa (August 2022) (xlsx) (36.37 KB)548
Kansas (August 2022) (xlsx) (37.79 KB)661
49 more rows
Sep 6, 2022

Can you put shredded paper in the recycling? ›

Do not put shredded paper in with recycling - it causes problems at the sorting plant, and the value of shredded paper is reduced due to the shortened fibre length.

What do you do with paper once it's shredded? ›

In most cities, shredded paper is recyclable as long as it's contained. How you do that depends entirely on where you live. Some cities want shredded paper in clear plastic bags. Others want it in paper bags or cardboard boxes.

Is shredding paper really necessary? ›

The most important reason to get a paper shredding machine for personal or office use is to avoid identity theft. You can never be too safe when it comes to your personal information. To protect your business from data theft, we recommend securely destroying all confidential documents before discarding them.

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