Composting Big Time in Beantown: What MA is Doing with Their Leftovers and Other Stories

by Anna McColgan for SUST 240

Massachusetts is a state steeped in history. From sports teams to educational institutions, we pride ourselves largely on our past. Despite this persistent culture of nostalgia, some recent news may be placing Massachusetts closer to the front of the waste diversion movement. According to the article “Massachusetts’ New Composting Rules: What They Really Mean,” published in The Boston Globe and written by Chris Perdik, Massachusetts is banning the disposal of organic waste exceeding one ton per week in landfills, in the hopes of establishing an infrastructure that enables the majority of organic waste, at least that produced at the commercial level, to be composted. The article outlines a number of challenges that may come along with this new regulation.

Firstly, Perdik addresses the issue of consumer knowledge and behavior by interviewing Matthew King, the food service director at the New England Aquarium, which has been composting its organic waste for the past four years. King discusses the difficulty of having individuals misunderstand the separation process, not knowing what to put in the compost, what the compost is, or where it goes. “The sorting is easy to control with our staff,” he says, “because you have a limited number of people to train. With the public, it’s like you have to train every one of them.”

Massive piles at the WM large-scale compost site on Chicago’s far South Side (A. McColgan, 2014)

Massive piles at the WM large-scale compost site on Chicago’s far South Side (A. McColgan, 2014)

This is a persistent issue with many sustainability efforts. Our SUST 240 Waste & Consumption class witnessed this firsthand when we toured a Waste Management recycling sorting center on the far South Side of Chicago and even when touring the waste facilities of our own university. Folks just don’t know how or what to recycle sometimes, even if they might have good intentions. And therein also lies an inherent conflict in the desire and necessity to make diversion simple and accessible for consumers and making it an effective process. The concept of single-stream recycling — where residents put everything in one bin and where materials are sorted at the centralized recycling centers — makes it a lot more possible for the majority of the citizenry to participate in movements toward sustainability, but causes a slew of other problems on the sorting end of the recycling process, as we saw during our tour: from putting the wrong stuff in the bin to contamination to leaving recycling in plastic bags that inevitably clog sorting machines.

So while we are consistently left with a question of how to make recycling accessible and also effective, this focus on individual behavior at the point of disposal does not address some of the bigger problems with the way we handle waste. This is why laws like that being enacted by Massachusetts that place the onus on commercial producers to divert large percentages of waste can be so beneficial.

But another question that this article poses in regards to the new regulation is, where to take the food waste? At this time, there are not sufficient external composting facilities to meet the coming demand in Massachusetts for food waste disposal, and the process is not an easy one. Our class had the chance to visit an industrial-scale composting farm and saw massive piles of mostly yard and some food waste in various stages of decomposition. The one pile that looked the most like usable soil had been in process for at least a year.

Piles of shredded currency found at WM's compost site on Chicago's far South Side (photo: A. McColgan, 2014)

Piles of shredded currency found at WM’s compost site on Chicago’s far South Side (photo: A. McColgan, 2014)

But the most interesting thing we found while touring their facilities was an astounding amount of shredded currency, some in large piles, some spread along the ground, presumably taken out of circulation by the Federal Reserve and shipped there for disposal. This oddity pointed to one of the biggest questions I ask myself when scrolling through news articles about new waste diversion efforts (a frequent pastime, of course), which is simply: who’s getting paid?

There is a substantial history of folks in the environmental movement trying to make sustainability a fiscally beneficial enterprise for businesses, but that changes the way that waste diversion gets done. For example, the new organic material being diverted from landfills in Massachusetts and shuttled to a centralized location for industrial-scale composting itself requires the use of resources (such as fuel) and produces various types of waste. If it weren’t profitable for Waste Management and other haulers to do this — make compost and sell it to consumers — it may not have been diverted at all. As a Bostonian myself, I’ll be interested to see how Massachusetts chooses to grapple with these many challenges in the implementation of this new law.

This still leaves the question for all advocates of environmental sustainability to incorporate into our already hyper-complicated dialogue: is making sustainability profitable really ever going to change the material consumption and waste production patterns of the United States that make our future tenuous? And if not, then can we make change without someone making a profit?

Source: Berdik, C. (2014, September 28). Massachusetts’ New Composting Rules: What They Really Mean; How a Regulation Designed to Keep Food Waste out of Landfills Will Affect Restaurants, Supermarkets, and You. The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 210 Sustainable Future and SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

Posted in Business, Education, News, Recycling, Students, Sustainability, Waste | Tagged

Listen to the Worms! Getting Started with Vermicomposting

by Alyssa Carabez for SUST 240

A Facebook status post from a co-worker inquiring if any friends wanted a “free composting bin complete with worms and soil to get you started” prompted my curiosity. Sarah is a bartender at the restaurant where I work. She has been worm composting for the past four years and offered both a gander at her worms and some words of advice on a pleasant, autumn evening.

Sarah's worm composting bin (photo: A. Carabez)

Sarah’s worm composting bin (photo: A. Carabez)

Sarah has resided in the neighborhood of Rogers Park, a few blocks from Loyola University’s lakeshore campus, for over a decade. She credits her interest in sustainability to her earth-minded parents. Her parents composted (without worms), raised goats and rabbits, and grew various fruits and vegetables at their home in Michigan. She notes how they taught her to have a respectful, conscious relationship with food. She gushed about the closed cycle in her home that having worms provides: the composted soil goes into her garden and potted plants and then the food is eaten by humans and worms and so on.

Here are some worm composting basics from Sarah:

  • Bedding, like shredded newspaper or cardboard, surrounding your worms and their dirt should always be kept moist.
  • Feed worms (depending on how many you have, of course) about half a pound of food a day. You’ll know if you gave them too much that day as fruit flies will surely gather.
  • Do not feed your worms spicy food, animal products, or cooked food. Raw fruit and vegetable waste is ideal. Some say to not feed them citrus foods due to the acidity, but hers enjoy them in small amounts. Egg shells are okay, as well as some coffee grounds, but not too much as it makes them wired just like people — “just listen to the worms!”
  • Be sure to keep worms insulated in the winter, in a cool or air conditioned space in the summer, and in a container in which they are able to breathe. She used a simple Tupperware storage bin with holes drilled throughout.
  • There will be leakage so prepare for that at the bottom of your bin. It should have a “healthy earthy smell.” If it’s stinky something is wrong; you more than likely gave too much food to your worms that day.

From more information to get started on your own worm composting bin, check out this link from the Cornell Waste Management Institute.

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 210 Sustainable Future and SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

Posted in Education, Recycling, Students, Sustainability, Waste | Tagged

Turn Waste into Resources by Playing the Recycle Game

by Shondra Watson for SUST 210

We all know that Chicago is a city full of people, businesses, and communities. Although its northwest neighbor of Schaumburg is not equally as large or busy, as a thriving city of about 75,000 people it does have its fair share of families and workplaces. Each one of these families and communities can play a part in contributing to the environment while having a little fun in the process.

As a busy wife, mother, student and employee, I don’t have a lot of time to commit to some of the issues that I believe in. However, I discovered a way to play a role in sustainability. We can do the little things that count. Recycling is a great way to turn waste into resources. It conserves energy, reduces air and water pollution, decreases greenhouse gases, and conserves natural resources.

Prior to researching and discovering ways to contribute to the well-being of our planet, I was somewhat aware of the effects my actions had on our environment. Yet I felt it was extremely hard to live a life of environmental consciousness. I would ask myself, “How can little old me make a difference?” I thought that sustainable living was only for environmentalists and scientists.

In addition to my stepson and daughter maintaining their normal household chores to get an allowance, they also compete every couple of weeks to see which one has a full recycle bin and not a full trash can. This concept is rewarding and educational, because they have to take time to research what can and cannot be recycled, while participating in some friendly competition.

I have also implemented this game at my office. The maintenance woman compares the garbage can and the recycle bin from each person in my department to determine who has the largest batch of recycled materials; the winner receives a free lunch from our Director each month.

This has allowed my family and co-workers to engage in a friendly game, become more knowledgeable about what can and cannot be recycled, and have a little fun while helping to conserve more of our natural resources. The recycle game is a win-win for everyone, and it is especially a victory for our planet as well.

Exercising a sustainable lifestyle does not have to be a daunting task. Simple things can make a big difference. My family and colleagues have made some small changes that are helpful and contribute to improving the health of the environment. I have started to practice eco-friendly routines within my home and workplace that allow me to help, not harm, the earth. My family and I are making efforts to better our future, and your family can too!

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 210 Sustainable Future and SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

Posted in Communities, Education, Recreation, Recycling, Schaumburg, Students, Sustainability, Waste | Tagged

Untapped Urban Land Resource: the Chicago Transit Authority

by Katie Budney for SUST 240

Most of us are familiar with the CTA as a method of transportation. Fewer of us are aware that the agency also operates in a landlord capacity. The CTA rents parking spaces, offices, and retail spaces to interested commuters and business owners. Any ground under the CTA tracks is technically owned by the agency. This means that all the coffee shops, corner markets, and bike repair shops directly under the train tracks are renting space from the rightful owner: the CTA.

Someone who has only spent time around RU’s Chicago campus wouldn’t know it, but in other parts of the city, the elevated train tracks often have barren patches of grass and gravel underneath them. Jack Meyer, a longtime Boystown resident, has found a creative use for this land by renting it from the CTA. He’s turned a shady spot under the tracks into a charming retreat, in lieu of a traditional backyard. His innovative use of the space reminded me that living in a big city means finding the hidden corners of tranquility.

If someone wanted to create an urban garden in a highly-trafficked, very visible area, using CTA property could be a great way to do it. It would be a cool means of engaging people and raising awareness of the possibilities of urban agricultural spaces. Unlike some other sources of land for urban gardens, it’s not a free option. However, with some fundraising, it could potentially be an interesting prospect. It is important to draw attention to all available options when space is so limited.

I am sure that using CTA property as land for urban farming is not the point at which our creativity snaps. Maybe we could form relationships with commercial buildings to use their rooftops, basements, or patios as places to grow food, compost, or tend green rooftops. Even the private property of sustainability-minded Chicagoans might be a viable option (assuming they gave their full, informed consent, of course). The Chicago Park District has options for people who want to start a community garden on public property, and resources for participating in existing community gardens. What other territory can we cover? Who else can we collaborate with to make Chicago a more eco-friendly city? Fortunately for us, human ingenuity is an unlimited resource.

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 210 Sustainable Future and SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

Posted in Architecture, Chicago, Communities, Gardening, Green Design, Students, Sustainability, Transportation | Tagged

Cleaning Up Industrial Waste in Calumet Heights IL

by Danielle Cooperstock for SUST 240

The United States Department of Justice announced on September 3, 2014 on their Office of Public Affairs that a $26 settlement was agreed upon by the federal Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency to fund the land clean up for Calumet Heights, a Chicago neighborhood on the Southeast Side. In three areas around the neighborhood, including Carrie Gosch Elementary School, the soil is contaminated with lead and arsenic which was caused by the waste produced during the industrial development of the area from the 1900s to 1985.

Calumet Heights is located on the East Side of Chicago, just northwest of the Calumet River which runs into Lake Michigan. Both Calumet Heights and the Calumet River have been heavily industrialized which has resulted in their high levels of pollution and unsafe conditions. (Photo: Re/max Northern Illinois)

Calumet Heights is located on the East Side of Chicago, just northwest of the Calumet River which runs into Lake Michigan. Both Calumet Heights and the Calumet River have been heavily industrialized which has resulted in their high levels of pollution and unsafe conditions. (Photo: Re/max Northern Illinois)

The settlement was reached between the Atlantic Richfield Company and E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. because under the Superfund law, they are liable for the cleanup since they or their predecessors are or were the owners of the factories that caused the lead and arsenic contamination in the Calumet neighborhood. The cleanup will consist of removing as much as two feet of soil from the affected areas to replace it with uncontaminated soil. The contaminated soil will then be sent off to landfills that will contain the toxins.

What is even more shocking than the high levels of contamination in Calumet Heights is the lack of community awareness about the contaminated soil as well as the plan to clean it up. The Post-Tribune correspondent, Carrie Napoleon, talked to many members of the community in her article, “In path of pollution, residents react to $26 million cleanup pact” to get their reactions to the $26 million settlement only to find out that no-one in the neighborhood knew about it, but none were surprised. Calumet Heights has historically been a heavily industrialized neighborhood: the first factory in Calumet was built in the early 1900s and produced copper until it was bought out in 1920s by U.S. Smelting, then Refining and Mining, and then by USS Lead.

It is vital for the health of future to clean up our planet! (photo:

It is vital for the health of future to clean up our planet! (photo:

In 2012, USA Today released an article by Alison Young and Peter Eisler that presented the results from soil testing in over 400 areas in the United States in which there were potential lead smelters unknown to federal regulators (for they were in operation before the EPA was created). The experimenters collected soil samples within one mile of where the factories once operated from areas such as residential yards (with permission), public parks, schools, athletic fields, and public land. Their findings concluded that lead contamination in soil was generally highest in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia because of their history with industrialization. The article also mentions that the population density of these cities added to the lead contamination because there were most likely more cars being driven around that were burning and polluting leaded gasoline.

In various neighborhoods in Chicago, there have been numerous cases of lead and/or arsenic contamination caused by the waste byproducts of factories. Just South of Calumet Heights is an area known to the U.S. EPA in Region 5 as the Lake Calumet Cluster site. This area is approximately eighty-seven acres and is heavily industrialized, both historically and currently. Both the U.S. EPA and the Illinois EPA have been instrumental in funding the cleanup of this site that began in 1979 to limit the affects of the toxins in the Alburn Incinerator, an unnamed parcel, U.S. Drum II, and the Paxton Area Lagoons. The cleanup funds provided for action such as replacing contaminated soil and using clay caps to contain the hazardous substances, which included lead and arsenic.

The high levels of soil contamination found in Chicago are not only an environmental issue, but they are also a human rights issue. King County in — released information about lead and arsenic which includes their effects on one’s health. Lead is more toxic to children because ingesting contaminated soil, paint chips, or any other source it may be found in, can cause both long-term and short-term health problems. However, simple exposure to lead can result in health problems as well. Short-term exposure of lead can cause brain and kidney damage while long-term exposure can cause changes to the blood and central nervous systems, blood pressure, kidneys, and the body’s ability to metabolize vitamin D.

The health effects of arsenic, however, are symptoms that could have derived from various other sources which make it difficult for people to realize that it is their environment that is giving them their health problems. The effects of short-term exposure to arsenic include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, loss of appetite, shaking, coughing and having a headache. The effects of long-term exposure to arsenic include skin pigmentation, numbness, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, vascular disease, skin cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and liver cancer.

The effects of development and production have been detrimental to our planet and humankind. Now is the time to create a more positive and sustainable future. The U.S. EPA has been working to clean up the mess that humans have made; however, there is just so much of it. There needs to be more awareness and education around pollution about the harm it can have on our planet and on our health. The citizens of Calumet Heights, as well as other contaminated neighborhoods, have the right to know about what is in their soil so that they can make educated decisions about how to engage with the environment around them.

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 210 Sustainable Future and SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

Posted in Brownfields, Chicago, Communities, Education, News, Pollution, Students, Sustainability, Transportation, Waste | Tagged

RU Student/Faculty Team Give Presentation to the Schaumburg Community Garden Club

This past Wednesday at the monthly meeting of the 25-year-old Schaumburg Community Garden Club, SUST undergrad MaryBeth Radeck and professor Mike Bryson teamed up to give a presentation at the Spring Valley Nature Center about the sustainable landscape transformation at Roosevelt’s Schaumburg Campus and the development of the RU Community Garden.

The local gardeners, most of them senior citizens with years of experience growing flowers, vegetables, and herbs, were keenly interested to learn about MaryBeth’s experiments using a self-watering “keyhole” container garden that also serves as its own composter; and the recent installation of a drip irrigation system this past summer. In term, the RU team learned that the Garden Club raises money for local environmental programs (such as the Mighty Acorns youth programming at Spring Valley), holds an annual native plant sale, and donates all of its hundreds of pounds of produce to the Schaumburg Township Food Pantry.

RU Presentation to SCGC 2014-09-10


Posted in Agriculture, Education, Events, Food, Gardening, Roosevelt, Schaumburg, Schaumburg Campus, Students, Sustainability

Cutting Back on Pollution (and Jobs) at Coal-Fired Power Plants in Joliet and Romeville

As reported in the Friday 8 Aug 2014 edition of the Joliet Herald-News, NRG Energy company is planning to reducing coal-fired power generation at its Romeoville IL station and convert the coal-fired plant in Joliet over time to natural gas. In the process, the company (which acquired the power stations from California-based Midwest Generation earlier this year) will significantly downsize the workforce at both plants, eventually laying off about 200 workers in the region.

NRG's Generating Station in Joliet IL

NRG’s Generating Station in Joliet IL

While the loss of local jobs is painful consequence of this action, the environmental impacts of this change will be, on the whole, positive. The long-running Joliet and Romeoville power stations, both situated along industrialized stretches of the Des Plaines River and in the midst of dense human populations in Will County, are two of the biggest point-sources of air pollution in the Chicago region. The planned changes by NRG are expected to produce a significant cut in carbon emissions for the state of Illinois; and the reduced air and particulate pollution from burning coal will benefit approximately 200,000 citizens in the Joliet metro area as tens of thousands more in northern Will County region.

The planned shift to natural gas combustion at the Joliet plant is part of a nationwide trend to utilize natural gas in lieu of coal, which is far dirtier to burn, and is plentiful in the US due to ramped up extraction processes such as hydrofracturing. Nevertheless, fracking is a highly fraught process that poses threats to groundwater sources both in its excessive use of freshwater and its production of high volumes of toxic wastewater; and it is a politically charged point of controversy here in Illinois and in other states, particularly Pennsylvania and Colorado.

Posted in Business, Economics, Energy, Joliet, News, Pollution, Waste, Water