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New Sustainable Materials Roadmap Hopes to Curtail Waste Generation in Cook County

February 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

In the Great Lakes region, Illinois comes in second in the unenviable race for which state can generate the most garbage. The problem is exacerbated in Cook County, which falls well below national averages in both waste mitigation and rate of recycling. For environmental and financial reasons, these problems must be addressed.
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Please Don’t Feed the Landfills: Food Composting on a Commercial Scale

June 24, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

Reducing the amount of food we send to landfills can have significant financial and environmental benefits. One method for dealing with our leftovers is composting. But can it scale up to a commercial scale where those benefits could be maximized?
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Waste Management’s Dirty Little Secret

March 26, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

By Linda Seggelke

The hauling and handling of garbage is a job that few of us really want to think about. But we should, because the industry has a huge potential to increase landfill diversion, resource conservation, material reuse and, perhaps most importantly, jobs.
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A Greener Field

September 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker
You have been to the Field Museum of Natural History, no doubt. You’ve seen the taxidermied animal specimens, the mummies and the fossils. You’ve gazed up at Sue. But there’s so much you haven’t seen.
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Rethinking Your Building’s Waste Infrastructure

June 25, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

We often think of waste in our buildings as a burden, as something that must be dealt with. “I want to disavow that notion and talk about how you can think of your waste stream as an asset in your organization, not a liability,” said Kevin Dick.
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Mayor Announces Expansion of Recycling to Entire City by End of 2013

February 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

recyclingThe city of Chicago announced today the expansion of the blue cart recycling program to the 49th and 50th Wards. However, city officials also vowed to expand recycling pickup to the entirety of Chicago by the end of the year.
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Old Growth: The Rebuilding Exchange Broadens in Size and Mission

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

Deconstruction—the art of carefully dismantling a building rather than demolishing it—has been expanding over the past few years. Also expanding is the local hub for this practice, the Rebuilding Exchange. What once was merely an exchange for repurposed building materials is now also an exchange for deconstruction ideas.

Since first opening back in February of 2009, it has been the mission of the Rebuilding Exchange to create a market for reclaimed building materials. Initially, this was manifest simply in a Brighton Park warehouse where contractors and the DIY community could donate or purchase salvaged building supplies. A recent move to the northwest side has given the nonprofit venture more room for stock. But perhaps just as exciting are the expanded endeavors such as educational seminars and even a furniture line.
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A More Sustainable Chicago

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jo McKee

If there were any lingering doubts about the Emanuel administration’s commitment to sustainability, the 2015 Sustainable Chicago Action Agenda will hopefully lay them to rest. The green itinerary calls for aggressive actions on the part of the Chicago government and its citizens to reduce our impact on the environment over the next two to three years.

“A sustainable Chicago,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his opening remarks to the action plan, “is a city that spends less on energy use with each passing year, creates good-paying jobs in up-and-coming industries, responsibly maintains and upgrades its infrastructure, and ensures every Chicagoan has the opportunity to live a healthy and active lifestyle.”

The goal of the Sustainable Chicago action plan is to provide practical tactics to keep Chicago among the country’s most sustainable cities. These are just some of the goals and strategies that the mayor and his Sustainability Council put forward.


The first avenue of sustainability is job creation and economic development. The action plan points out several projects currently underway that do or will provide green jobs, such as a $1.1 billion investment in smart grid technology and sewer, CTA and airport infrastructure projects. Between 2007 and 2010, renewable energy jobs increased in Chicago by more than 12% and pollution reduction jobs increased by nearly 14%, more than double the national average.

In that same time, wind technology grew in the region by over 23%. Through efforts like last year’s green manufacturing plan, Chicago Sustainable Industries, the city aims to leverage public-private partnerships to ensure that green jobs continue to grow here.

“This roadmap not only sets the goals that will shape our priorities for years to come,” Emanuel said, “but establishes a swift course of action that will challenge us to create jobs, foster new industries, and reduce costs for residents and businesses.”

The action plan stresses making Chicago a hub for the sustainable economy by recruiting sustainability companies to locate here and increasing demand for green products through municipal procurement. The plan also claims that the city will “identify, prioritize and eliminate code barriers to sustainable practices.”


There are over 600,000 buildings in Chicago, which combine to create over 70% of the city’s carbon emissions. Keeping in mind that this plan has a 2015 deadline, one major goal is to improve citywide energy efficiency in those buildings by 5% and by 10% in municipal buildings.

The plan stresses the creation of 20 MW of new renewable energy—at least half of that on city-owned property. Given that the Fisk and Crawford coal plants were shuttered earlier this year, this may be motivated as much by necessity as idealism. Currently, renewables account for roughly 2% of the city’s energy demand.

Strategies the city hopes to have in place toward these goals include cutting the solar permit approval time in half, replacing street lights with energy-efficient bulbs and installing smart meters in homes and businesses.


Vehicle emissions are of course an enormous source of greenhouse gases. One solution to reduce these is to increase the amount of pedestrian and bike traffic in the city. For commuters, the only real way to reduce carbon emissions is to encourage the use of public transportation, which has plummeted since the 1940’s.

The city has already installed a number of dedicated and/or protected bike lanes across the city this year. The action plan calls for an additional 100 miles to be created by 2015. A bike sharing system with an inventory of 4,000 bikes should also reduce the number of car trips that Chicago residents and visitors make. For pedestrians, a new Navy Pier “flyover” will enhance foot and bike traffic to the city’s most popular tourist destination.

The CTA had over half a billion riders last year. But that’s still not enough. To increase ridership, the transit agency will be adding bus rapid transit next year and continue improvements to rail infrastructure. The CTA will also replace or rehab 1,500 buses with low-emission models. The Red Line is currently undergoing a large modernization project, with seven stations getting facelifts and the entirety of the Dan Ryan route under reconstruction at some level. It is hoped that these improvements will cut up to 20 minutes off of a daily commute.


Chicago is shaped by waterways; Lake Michigan forms one border and the Chicago River defines the city’s neighborhoods. The lake is our playground, but also our source of drinking water. The twice-reversed river, on the other hand, is our stormwater reservoir and wastewater catchment. It is imperative that we protect both, for the flora and fauna that call them home and for the future of our economy and well-being.

The 2015 Sustainable Chicago Action Plan calls for a reduction in water use by 14 million gallons per day. Keys to this include replacing aging water mains, an expansion of gray water use (including possible changes to the municipal code) and more aggressive water metering.

Better stormwater management will go a long way to not only keeping Chicago basements dry, but the Chicago River clean. Portions of Deep Tunnel, the decades-long underground reservoir project, are already online, but plans are in place for the Thornton Reservoir to open by 2014.

The city also hopes to enhance access to the lake and to make the Chicago River the area’s second waterfront. Crucial to the this last goal are filling in the gaps along the riverfront trail and constructing boat houses and other recreational opportunities. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also voted this year to finally begin disinfecting sewage discharge into the river, making recreation on the river an attractive and viable goal.


Compared to other major US cities, Chicago is dismal at household recycling. The action agenda pushes for the blue cart program to be available to every household within the next three years. Combined with the change to a grid-based waste pickup strategy, rather than the inefficient ward-based scheme in place now, these efforts will help save on fuel and reduce the amount of household waste going to landfills.

Making up more than 60% of Chicago’s waste stream, however, is construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Chicago ordinances mandate that half of all C&D waste be diverted from landfills. Here the city is leading by example; new projects being implemented by the Public Building Commission are on schedule for a 90% C&D diversion rate.

“From improving citywide energy efficiency and promoting diversified transit options, to launching citywide recycling,” Emanuel said, “the roadmap is robust and comprehensive, touching upon the full spectrum of life for Chicagoans.” The action agenda addresses many more areas of sustainability, including parks and open spaces, efforts to curb climate change, access to healthy food and much more. You can read the full report at the city’s website:

Emanuel Looks to Clean Up Chicago Recycling

September 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susanna Weatherford

The City Council adopts the goal of making regular recycling service available by July 1, 1993, to 100 percent of the households in low-density dwellings served by the City of Chicago.

So begins the section of the Chicago Municipal Code regarding regular recycling service. To put that in perspective, Chicago Bulls fans were wearing out the word “threepeat” in July of 1993, the Unabomber was still on the loose and David Letterman was preparing his switch from NBC to CBS.
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Reduce, Reroof, Recycle: Finding a Second Life for Asphalt Shingling

March 9, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

By Matt Baker

The most ubiquitous roofing style in the United States, topping roughly two thirds of residential roofs in the nation, is asphalt shingling. This is due to its low cost, easy installation and relatively long lifespan. These shingles are even more common in the northern, temperate regions of the nation where the reduced risk of thermal shock further lengthens their longevity.
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