Driving Around With Ken Dunn

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]

I jumped into the Resource Center’s 10-wheeler as it rounded a corner in Hyde Park, with Program Director Ken Dunn at the helm en-route to his first load of some-thing. I’m riding along to get a sense of what keeps the program going day to day. While the Resource Center isn’t the only recycling operation in the city of Chicago, it’s unique in that it is continually up-scaling its operations to make increasingly complex and extended interventions that will prolong the life cycle of manufactured materials and raw wastes. The Resource Center’s mission is to encourage material sustainability and social equity through a cluster of programs that integrate the rescue of resources typically wasted in the urban environment, focus-ing on locally grown food, productive employment and the conservation of materials. Since its inception 30 years ago, the Resource Center’s approach has led to the creation of permanent and interim jobs for up to 40 individuals and the development of several semi-permanent sites for urban food production. The daily work of the Resource Center, however, is the humble labor of moving materials from one location to another, a highly choreographed and persistent interruption of the waste cycle of commodities. Simply stated, this means keeping as much stuff out of landfill as possible by finding ways to extend their social and econo-mic utility. In a city as spread out as Chicago, that means creativity and a whole lot of driving.

Driving is endemic to Chicago. Its large size and relatively sparse population (lots of smaller houses as opposed to apartment buildings) makes it very expensive to drive all the city streets to collect the trash. This is the reason the City adopted the “blue bag” recycling program in which all trash is collected at once, with the recyclables contained “separately” in blue bags. The City argues the blue bag program’s inefficiencies in sorting are outweighed by how the program cuts the miles driven by collection vehicles in half. They claim this is more efficient than the two-pass pickup system most cities use, with one truck dedicated to recycling and other to non-recyclable trash. It is only through the careful sorting of different types of trash, however, that the possibilities of full resource recovery is possible. For example, city trash collection has no capacity for gathering compostable wastes, a resource which is key to the development of new urban food production. The Resource Center’s solution is to strategically accept some of these miles of cartage in order to rescue and properly sort the trash, with the philosophy it is better to drive one large truck full of bottles or paper from a pickup site to a recycler than to have individual car owners driving all over the city to drop-off sites, or worse, to have all the rubbish go together into one bin.

Chicagoans might be familiar with some of the Resource Center’s Services; materials re-cycling on 135th Place, the composting yard in Woodlawn, the multiple locations for container and metal recycling, or one of the farming sites, particularly the City Farm at Cabrini Green, where passersby can get heirloom organic tomatoes for a song. Our first stop is the south 70th Street materials collection depot for metal, pallets and wood waste and bottles and cans. This is also where food wastes from University of Chicago cafeteria kitchens and several top-rated Chicago restaurants are glooped daily out of one of the Center’s front loader compactors and composted to produce rich soil. I wait while Ken runs some leaves through a chipper to improve their texture for a landscaper and fills the truck’s fuel tank. The Resource Center at-tracts customers with their willingness to tailor their products, and there’s a lot of tailoring going on to bring commodities to a second or third life of utility for someone else. A tidy pile of oak 4x4s, the finely trimmed remains of pallets used to ship wire coils from Indiana, sits ready for delivery to Frontera Grill. The Center’s daily routes were engineered throughout the expansionist century of Chicago, sprawls engineered by now-obsolete industrial production and pure speculation, where land as a commodity is as profitable to waste as every other commodity on the store shelf.

The engine reverberates loudly against the “L” line as we rumble west on Lake Street and right onto Halsted. We head north to the theater where the Blue Man Group performs. Their last act involves tossing reams of crumply white paper at the audience, paper which is wasted nightly, or twice that, when they perform a mat-inee. Once a week, Dunn empties their paper filled dumpster and hauls the paper to an accessory importer on the west side who uses it to repack their handbags and hats for further shipping. As we drive, Ken fields calls on his mobile phone, such as an inquiry from the Field Museum, wanting to know if he is interested in developing a program to grow native grass seeds for habitat remediation. His responses reflect a lifelong experience in farming and an eagerness to pass on projects to the most appropriate entities. He refers them to a landscape business, to Green Net and other individuals with community connections.

One of the improvements in the Resource Center’s future will be the addition of a bio-diesel processor that will enable them to make fuel out of waste grease. I contemplate the economic obstacles; they are basically competitors in the recycling field, providing an infrastructural urban service on an open market. They are in competition with other private recyclers as well as the city’s own subsidized contractors, Allied Industries and Waste Management. What makes them different—the fact they are a non profit with a green-positive, social equity-fueled ideological edge—does not give them an advantage on an open market where they confront the same obstacles as any other recycler, namely the ridiculously dispersed size of the city of Chicago. In response to my questions about the wide spatial distribution of the Resource Center’s pickup sites, Dunn explains the strategic logic to being in several places stretched out around the city: it makes it more difficult for the government to dismiss the operation and claim superiority for the blue bag system. It is a weird form of empire-building perhaps. Although he sees their current recycling sites as ‘woefully inadequate’ serving only as placeholders for future prospective sites, he sees them demonstrating functional recycling in practically all of the communities, including Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) sites.

This all sounds like a recycling business; so what, then, does it have to do with food production? Dunn’s focus on agricultural production in the city is driven by a desire to provide high- quality food to people who cannot afford to go to Whole Foods for their grocery shopping. Food production was integrated into the Resource Center’s activities in the late 70s when the organization assisted in the development of local community gardens in red-lined neighborhoods — those neighborhoods that were subject to economic discrimination expressed in ways that led to the devaluation and even expropriation of property, and ultimately to further isolation and decay. Usually, it means a homeowner cannot get loans to repair their home, or that supermarkets won’t open in the area because of insurance risks. Of course, the abandoned lots in these same neighborhoods are the primary candidates for urban food production.

One of these is City Farm on Division and Clybourne, the location of Cabrini Green. City Farm was started in the early 90s, as ecologically conscientious chefs working in Gold Coast restaurants indicated their willingness to pay premium prices for locally grown organic produce. While these restaurants can afford $3/lb. tomatoes, not everyone can, and Ken is trying to get the chefs to understand some of the realities of food and class dynamics. The relationships Dunn nurtures with these restaurants continue to expand into investigations into other facets of the food production and restaurant waste cycle. In a recent gathering, amidst presentations by manufacturers of rice-based disposable cutlery (6 cents a spoon) and biode-gradable dishwasher soap, Ken quietly addres-sed the politics of holiday food philanthropy. After repeatedly encountering the suggestion that restaurants and their clientele donate to the Chicago Food Pantry, an organization that repackages and redistributes expired processed commercial food, he spoke to the insult of a two-tiered food system that makes healthy food available to the well-off and spreads obesity and malnutrition to the struggling.

As we pile newspapers together in the bitter cold at one of recycling sites, I try to further understand the intricacies of the Resource Center’s relationship to the city. In Ken Dunn’s vision, the Resource Center is an infrastructure that uses integrated waste collection to assist in the material support of urban farming. To establish this kind of operation on an effective scale—one that will lead to an appreciable increase in intra-city food production—the Resource Center needs the support of the city, through a commitment of funding and waste stream resources, and also permission to use the city’s land. The upcoming composting site will likely be started up with a half-million dollar state grant funded by the Illinois fee on landfills, a little bit of effort on the part of the city to fund an alternative ‘replacement technology’ to replace a system which is currently unsustainable.

And perhaps as the project continues, new questions about obstacles to sustainability can begin to be taken more seriously. Perhaps the viability of new urban-based agricultural development can force a more critical look at the vast and spread-out nature of cities such as Chicago. Perhaps we can ask how a city which is earnest about sustainability, social justice and local food production, and about the rescuing and re-sourcing of wastes might also produce new parameters for how land is valued and who has access to it.


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