Smog, Pollution, and Improving the Chicago Region’s Air Quality

by Melanie Blume for SUST 240

Smog over Chicago IL (photo: Storm Williams, ENN)

Smog over Chicago IL (photo: Storm Williams, ENS)

Ever wondered where that smog we see hanging over the city in the morning actually comes from? And what happens when we breathe it in? The collective cloud is referred to as particle pollution. It’s a gaseous mix of chemicals and minute debris. The truth isn’t always pretty, but it’s got very real health consequences for people who live in smog-polluted areas: cancers, reproductive problems, asthma, and heart disease.

The American Lung Association has a program that reveals air quality reports around the United States called State of the Air. In 2014, State of the Air gave Chicago a failing grade for particle pollution as well as unsafe ozone levels. Another resource for the public is, which gives information based on zip codes of pollution sources and levels. It includes air and water pollution and even names the companies who pollute the most in that area. uses data complied by the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). Companies by law are required to submit their chemical emissions to the TRI. In Cook County, the Corn Products Argo Plant in Bedford Park takes the title for the heaviest toxic air releases. They reported air releases of hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, N-hexane, hydrofluoric acid, lead compounds, mercury compounds, and ammonia adding up to 1,123,016 lbs. of pollutants.

While this list of chemicals doesn’t mean much to the average nonchemist, hydrochloric acid is ranked as one of the most hazardous compounds (worst 10%) to human health and the overall ecosystem (

Despite being overlooked because it’s not entirely visible, air pollution has serious consequences. The American Lung Association reports that air pollution is linked to “increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks and can interfere with the growth and work of the lungs.” Cancer or asthma from extended exposure from general air quality is impossible to prove in terms of pinpoint the exact cause, but we’ve seen a clear enough trend to realize what happens when we breathe in toxic chemicals and particulates.

Nationally, the EPA sets the standards and uses the TRI data to make feasible benchmarks for industries to comply with. Change in air quality is assessed by the EPA and revisited every five years. The EPA is responsible for setting national air quality standards under the Clean Air Act that was enacted to improve air quality and protect public health “with an adequate margin of safety.”

On a much more local level, Chicago has its own action plan. As a response to our failing air quality grade in Chicago, solutions are being proposed. Mayor Emanuel wants clear data on air quality and sources to improve the efficacy of any changes he can implement. Amina Elahi, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune‘s Blue Sky Innovation, wrote about Chicago’s plan to implement a high tech data collection system that will improve public health and safety.

The project is called Array of Things and will start rolling out at the end of this year. The goal is use technology to make better decisions in terms of Chicago’s overall sustainability. Devices mounted on lampposts will monitor air pollution and a free downloadable app will show pedestrians which route avoids the most air pollution to their destination. This database will remotely collect a plethora of information that will provide the city with solid data that’s necessary in making crucial decisions affecting public health.

Even if this program doesn’t turn out to be as successful as one might hope, it is nonetheless progress in the right direction. Public awareness about air pollution, its consequences, and its potential solutions is a critical component to changing our the quality of our environment for the better.

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

Posted in Chicago, Pollution, Science, Students, Sustainability, Waste

Hope for Illinois’ Jeopardized Electronics Recycling Programs

by Tiffany Mucci for SUST 240

Last week brought a glimmer of hope for Illinois’ electronic waste recycling program. Lauren Leone-Cross reported in the Joliet Herald-News on Tuesday, February 10th, of the filing of House Bill 1455, which has local governments crossing their fingers that electronics manufacturers’ state-mandated goals will be significantly increased to help fund the program. This recycling program, an outcome of the 2012 Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act, was proving to be highly effective until last year, when manufacturers met annual goals earlier than expected. The emergence of this predicament is explained in further detail in this SUST blog post from November 15th, 2014, “Will County E-Waste Recycling Program’s Future Uncertain”.

Dean Olson, head of Will County’s Resource Recovery and Energy Division, told Leone-Cross that “he and other local governments initially wanted the weight goal raised to 100 percent, but representatives from the Illinois Manufacturers Association were opposed, so compromise bills have been drafted.” Currently, manufacturers are required to pay into the recycling program until they meet 50 percent, by weight, of electronics sold in Illinois two years ago.

The hitch is that new electronics have become ever lighter year by year, making it easier for manufacturers to meet their quotas, and for this reason recycling programs across the state are in trouble. The proposed compromise would bring state-mandated goals up to 80 percent.

For now, municipalities are doing what they can to keep recycling events from disappearing altogether. In a related article published by Leone-Cross in the Joliet Herald-News last month, Olson announced that Will County’s collection events will be decreased from six days to two days for this entire year in an effort to avoid costs, adding that “Lake County, having been in a similar situation, pulled $200,000 from savings to subsidize its own electronics recycling program.”

The Orland Township electronics recycling drop-off site is closed. Last year, a half-million pounds of electronics were recycled.  (Photo: Gary Middendorf, Daily Southtown)

The Orland Township electronics recycling drop-off site is closed. Last year, a half-million pounds of electronics were recycled. (Photo: Gary Middendorf, Daily Southtown)

If this weren’t enough disappointment, just one day before House Bill 1455 was filed, Susan DeMar Lafferty published an article to the Chicago Tribune’s website to report that Orland Township’s once lively electronics recycling center has closed its doors until further notice. Illinois’ recycling program has officially become unaffordable for local governments, and this problem is evidence that manufacturers’ participation is integral to managing our e-waste.

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

Posted in Economics, News, Recycling, Students, Sustainability, Waste, Will County

Zero Percent: A Great Solution for “Wasted” Food to Hungry People

by Lindsey Sharp for SUST 240

During the final year of his PhD studies, Rajesh Karmani discovered something unsettling. A native of Pakistan, Karmani was no stranger to food issues and starvation, but as a student in the more affluent Midwestern city of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, Karmani was shocked to learn that food insecurity is a widespread problem in the US as well.

Sharp blog image

A map from the Greater Chicago Food Depository shows that parts of Cook County experience an estimated 30% – 50% rate of food insecurity.

In a video published by Sustainable America, the vastness of our food waste problem quickly becomes clear: 40% of the food produced in this country is not eaten, but instead contributes 16% of overall US methane emissions from waste rotting in a landfill. While these numbers indicate an abundance of unused and wasted food, approximately 49 million Americans are living in food-insecure households. Estimates from the Greater Chicago Food Depository alone state that approximately 1 out of every 6 Chicagoans turn to their network each year for food assistance.

It was in that gap between excess and access that Karmani sought change — if companies that end up with an excess of food, such as restaurants or distributors, could just be connected in a simple way with organizations that are in need of food, then the gap between waste and hunger could be narrowed.

Karmani put his background in computer science to great use and built Zero Percent, a Chicago-based food rescue service that redirects potential food waste to over 200 area nonprofits. Zero Percent couldn’t be simpler for it’s nearly 250 donors. After filling out a brief online form, donors are quickly contacted by a coordinator, who then dispatches a “Rescuer” to come pick up the donation at the donor’s convenience. Within four hours, those donations are in the hands of nonprofits who are then able to either distribute the food to or feed directly the members of our community who turn to them.

Organizations like Zero Percent are making it easy for almost anyone to make a positive change in Chicago’s food security landscape, which only underscores the importance of building creative solutions to bridge the gap between available resources and the people who need them most.

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

Posted in Chicago, Ethics, Food, Social Justice, Students, Sustainability, Waste | Tagged

Plots Available for the RU Community Garden at the Schaumburg Campus!

Roosevelt University’s Physical Resources Department is coordinating the Schaumburg campus’ RUrbanPioneer Community Garden for the 2015 growing season. This is the garden’s fourth year and its leadership team, led by senior SUST major and Environmental Sustainability Associate Mary Rasic, is excited to get started.

All members of the Roosevelt community who are interested in access to fresh, organic produce are welcome to participate. Garden members tend their own plots and participate in community tasks from early spring through November.

The RU community garden in 2014 (M. Rasic)

The RU community garden in 2014 (M. Rasic)

Last year, the garden team installed a drip irrigation system making each plot customizable to suit individual gardeners’ needs. They continue to learn and experiment with procedures, techniques, and equipment to make for a sustainable gardening. Each year the garden has produced fresh veggies and herbs for the Schaumburg Campus dining center, and gardeners have donated many pounds of produce to local food pantries in the Schaumburg area.

If you have any questions or would like to reserve your plot(s), please email Mary Rasic at and she will be happy to assist you. We think you can tell by the photo below that a good time is pretty much guaranteed!

Mary Rasic and Kevin Markowski work in the RU community garden, summer 2014

Mary Rasic and Kevin Markowski work in the RU community garden, summer 2014; cool sunglasses are always a plus.

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

Go from Farm to Table at Volkening Heritage Farm in Schaumburg

A new Farm to Table Cooking Series from the Schaumburg Park District teaches participants new recipes. The first in a series of four classes will be from 10 a.m. to noon, Feb. 21 at Volkening Heritage Farm at Spring Valley, 201 E. Plum Grove Road. The first class will focus on potatoes.

The farm kitchen at Volkening Heritage Farm, Schaumburg Park District (M. Bryson 2013)

The farm kitchen at Volkening Heritage Farm, Schaumburg Park District (M. Bryson 2013)

“This exciting series will focus on one main ingredient for each class,” said Dave Brooks, manager of conservation services at Spring Valley. “The participants will prepare the dish and learn about the importance of fresh foods.”

Also featured will be simple techniques to turn the common potato into quick and easy meals. The class will make two dishes and enjoy them with fresh-baked bread and country-cured bacon.

Sign up individually, or for the series. Cost is $12 for residents and $18 for non-residents per class.

For more information, call (847) 985-2102 or visit

Posted in Agriculture, Events, Food, Gardening, Parklands, Schaumburg, Sustainability | 1 Comment

SUST Senior Is First RU Intern at Spring Valley Nature Center

Blume, MelaniSenior Sustainability Studies major Melanie Blume is  working as an intern with conservation and education staff at the Spring Valley Nature Center and the Volkening Heritage Farm near Roosevelt’s campus in Schaumburg IL. These excellent facilities are part of the 135-acre Spring Valley Conservation Area, the largest and most ecologically significant green space with the Village of Schaumburg limits, and are managed by the Schaumburg Park District.

The Nature Center and the Heritage Farm provide year-round public programming for people in the NW suburban region, and together contribute greatly to the promotion of sustainability, nature awareness, and environmental literacy. Melanie is the first SUST major to intern at Spring Valley; hopefully this is the start of a good trend!

During the Spring 2015 semester, Melanie will reflect on her work at Spring Valley on prairie conservation, seed propagation, invasive species identification and removal at the Nature Center; as well as garden preparation, planting of their extensive vegetable garden, and contributing to Farm to Table programs with a focus on local food production at the Volkening Farm. Look for her upcoming posts on the SUST at RU blog!

Spring Valley Nature Center, seen from the restored prairie (M. Bryson, 2011)

Spring Valley Nature Center, seen from the restored prairie (M. Bryson, 2011)

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

Significant Milestones Reached for the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future Project

This past fall 2014 semester at Roosevelt University, undergraduate students from two Sustainability Studies classes — SUST 210 Sustainable Future (online) and 240 Waste & Consumption (honors) — contributed over 30 blog posts on news and topical developments in urban/suburban sustainability in the Chicago region, thus continuing the site’s blogging tradition started by students and faculty in 2011. In addition, these classes conducted in-depth research on sustainability efforts and waste-related environmental justice issues in several dozen communities, both locally and across the US. The fruits of this research will be posted in coming weeks to the Community Profiles and Environmental Justice sections of this site, so stay tuned for what will be a significant expansion of the SSF website.

A quick glance at the numbers: to date, the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future (SSF) project includes 163 blog posts and 100 in-depth essays on a wide range of sustainability issues, problems, and solutions. Much of this content is student-authored, which we believe demonstrates the value of the site as a learning tool and educational resource.

JESS journal coverNow, word of the SSF project is circulating through the channels of professional scholarship on sustainability education. SSF editor and SUST professor/director Mike Bryson has published the article, “Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future: Student Research, Social Media, and the ‘Edge City’ Suburb,” in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Science (12 Dec 2014). The article’s online publication earlier this month anticipates its  print appearance in the journal’s forthcoming special issue on “Integrating and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Sustainable Cities and Regions.” You can access a pdf of the article here.

Posted in Courses, Education, News, Roosevelt, Students, Sustainability | 1 Comment