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Afternoon Shift

Where does our garbage go?

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In late May, the Illinois House approved a measure that would prevent any new landfills from opening, or any existing landfills from expanding, inside Cook County. The proposal has already been approved by the State Senate, and now it’s awaiting Gov. Quinn’s signature. We wondered why the state was worried about landfill legislation at this time. 

A Bulldozer spreads garbage on a landfill. (Flickr/WI Dept. of Natural Resources)

It turns out there’s a tousle going on on the southeast side of Chicago. The dispute is between community groups, environmentalists, and some pols on one side, and a company called Land and Lakes and other pols on the other side. Ground zero is 138th and Cottage Grove. It’s actually the city of Dolton, and it’s where Land and Lakes operates a huge landfill. It’s a stone’s throw from the Altgeld Gardens housing projects, and just to the west of the Hegewisch neighborhood. Land and Lakes wants to expand to an 86 acre site that currently belongs to the city.

But back in 1984, the Chicago City Council put the kibosh on new or expanded landfills. In 2005, the City Council re-upped those same measures for an additional 20 years.  So the company dangled some large numbers in front of Dolton’s board. Cash the village would supposedly receive if it were to annex the 86 acres from Chicago and allow Land and Lakes their expansion. The Tribune said the number quoted was $36 million over 25 years that Dolton would bring in thanks to the expansion. That’s a lot of dough for a village that could really use it. A Cook County judge has already ruled in favor of Land and Lakes.  We’ll have to see what happens next as things work their way through the courts. 

But the drama playing out down at the bend of the Little Calumet River got us thinking...most of us have no idea where our garbage goes. Yeah, a couple of guys in a really smelly truck come down our alleys-or our streets if you live in the suburbs-and then it’s gone. But how far does it travel? Where does it end up? How long does it take to get there? Can it just keep going to that same place forever? Even as humans expand our ability and desire to recycle, we continue to generate refuse. How will we think about its disposal in the future?

Wednesday on Afternoon Shift, we get some answers from David Lee.  He’s a Ph.D. Candidate in Urban Studies and Planning, and a graduate researcher attached to the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT.  Back in 2009 the lab did a project called Trash Track, where tiny sensors were attached to all manner of people’s garbage.   There's also some easy-to-understand but eye-opening charts that Derek Thompson recently posted in The Atlantic.

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