Tag Archives: recycling

Living in a Plastic World

July 22, 2012

One woman’s war against plastics

Regular followers of my show know that I’m president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. (Full disclosure: To my dismay, it’s completely voluntary.) So, obviously, whether for that organization or for segments I do on my radio show, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about recycling and recycling strategies.

I say that as a way of confessing that I was unprepared for what I discovered in the book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, published by Skyhorse Publishing Company. The author is Beth Terry, who started on this mission not all that long ago–June, 2007, to be precise. It was then that she had her epiphany about plastics and began her spiritual–and practical–journey towards actually elminating plastics from her life.

I used italics there because even I know that there’s no way to eliminate plastics from our lives…or is there? Her blog, My Plastic-free Life (formerly fake plastic fish), describes the book as “a practical guide to ridding your life—and the planet—of plastic.” Hey, I’m not one to burst anyone’s bubble (okay, I am), but…um, Beth…see that mountain? That’s the one that you have decided to push your truck up. Good luck.

And yet, she approaches her subject in a way that splits the difference between optimism and–let’s say realism. She gives you the bad news that plastics are in practically every-fricking-thing that we manufacture and then cheerfully relates her own story of plastic redemption and how, if it worked for her, it will work for everybody else. And you know what? Because she backs up her writing with so many sources, so much information, you realize that she’s speaking the truth. That’s why you MUST buy the book.

Let me say that more clearly: Buy. The. Damn. Book. Today.

And then get to work to remove plastics from your life, at least to the extent that you can. And that’s another thing that Terry understands. We can do only what we can do. And, once we accomplish that, we can move to the next level. Hey, think of it as a video game! Except, if you lose, we all do.

I wish I could encapsulate all of the wisdom that Terry produces in a sentence or two, but it isn’t possible, mainly because our perceptions of how plastics affect our lives are wildly off the mark, and Terry needs to explain how we got here before she can suggest what needs to be done. And that can’t be done in a few paragraphs or in a radio conversation. One of the things she addresses is something that I’ve been talking about for awhile, namely that our own government is not really looking out for us. Says Terry:

Unlike many European countries, the United States does not follow the Precautionary Principle, which dictates that when an activity raises the threat of harm to human health and the environment, we should take precautionary measures to protect ourselves even before all the scientific data is in. What’s more, the Precautionary Principle specifies that companies should bear the burden of proving their products are safe before putting them on the market. In other words, we and our children should not have to be the guinea pigs for corporations’ latest and greatest chemical offerings. Sadly, that is just what happens in the United States.

But even worse, the United States does not even require manufacturers to disclose to the public what chemicals they add to their plastics in the first place. The intention is to help companies protect their “trade secrets.” So it becomes doubly impossible to determine whether a particular plastic item is safe, since even if we knew whether a particular additive was harmful or not, we wouldn’t necessarily know if it was in that particular kind of plastic or not.

And that’s just the starting point. She describes how plastics took over our lives in general, teaches us how to deal with various plastic products like plastic bags and plastic bottles (then explains why recycling plastics is really NOT the solution), how to eat without using plastics, how to shop without buying plastics, how to clean your house without using plastics and, ultimately, how changing our plastics-oversaturated world sits in your lap and you’d better do something, Bunky, because it really IS a matter of personal responsibility and actions.

Let me finish here with Beth Terry’s wise words:

Let’s follow the 4 Rs: refuse to buy single-use disposable packaging whenever possible; reduce the amount of unavoidable plastic we do consume and choose only those plastics that can realistically be recycled where we live; reuse plastic products when appropriate (some are not healthy to reuse); and recycle whatever is left. Finally, when purchasing durable products made from plastic, we can choose those made from recycled materials.

I am really, REALLY looking forward to this interview.

Fracking is coming to Illinois…unless you speak up

There is currently no hydraulic fracturing–or fracking–going on in Illinois…yet. That is all ready to change, after the General Assembly failed to take up the issue on the chaotic final day of the spring session. It left the state with no rules governing the controversial procedure. And it left the industry salivating at the opportunity to tap into something called New Alban Shale, a rock formation in southeastern Illinois that might be prime territory for producing large supplies of gas and oil. In fact, the rush is on to obtain those permits.

If you’ve seen the documentary Gasland, you know that there are serious issues about the environmental degradation caused by fracking, regardless of the energy it might supply. And the people who would be most affected by fracking in Illinois are, of course, the folks who live in southern Illinois.

Monday, July 30th from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE) is holding a rally at the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph to request that Governor Pat Quinn halt the permitting of hydro-fracking operations. They ask that you call him in Chicago at 312-814-2121.

They also want to see SB 3280 passed in the General Assembly, which, which calls for a 1 year Moratorium on Fracking. This is the bill that stalled earlier in the year, but could come up again in the fall Veto Session. To call your State Represtative and Senator to ask them to vote yes on SB3280,  the Oil and Gas Act-Shale-Fracking  bill, call the Capitol switchboard at (217) 782-2000.

Lora Chamberlain of SAFE joins me today to talk about this imporant issue. For more information, go to The IL Stop the Frack Attack Rally on Facebook.

A couple of rants and/or items of interest

Last week, I told the not-so-pretty story of the feral cat family in my yard (anybody want a couple of cute kittens? Anybody want to capture them, too?) who were leaving dead rat trophies on my back porch. That led to the question of bird mortality, and one of my favorite listeners, cat-lover Tom, called me out when I said that I thought that cats, feral and domesticated, were responsible for half a billion bird deaths in the U.S. each year.

So I did a little research and found a study that was published in in 2005 by the USDA called A Summary and Comparison of Bird Mortality from Anthropogenic Causes with an Emphasis on Collisions. Looks pretty scientific to me. Turns out I was off by a few hundred thousand (what’s a few hundred thousand among friends?)…at least regarding cats. But, all things considered, up to a billion birds in the U.S. die due to various causes.

Here’s what they found about annual bird mortality and its causes:

Collisions with buildings: 550 million (58.2 %)
Power lines: 130 million (13.7%)
Cats: 100 million (10.6%)
Automobiles: 80 million (8.5%)
Pesticides: 67 million (7.1%)
Communications towers: 4.5 million (0.5%)
Wind turbines: 28.5 thousand (<0.01%)
Airplanes: 25 thousand (<0.01%)
Other sources (oil spills, oil seeps, fishing by-catch, etc.) not calculated

The rant that I have involves the new water lines that are being put in on my block in the Logan Square neighborhood. Hey, I’m all for infrastructure improvements, and I know that you have to operate pretty large machinery to tear up a street to install pipes, but hey, guys! Can you take it easy on the trees?

Take a look at the photos on my home page. If the City did that on every street, we would lose half of the trees in Chicago. I’m deciding how to proceed. Any suggestions?

Herbs, urban gardens and household batteries

January 22, 2012

Countdown to Decision Chicago! The Great Herb Debate

Mark your calendars, sharpen your debating skills and get your seed packets lined up. Sunday, February ,5 is the date of the inaugural Great Herb Debate. The ubiquitous Mr. Brown Thumb and I have concocted this scheme in honor of the One Seed Chicago 2012 competition…and because I want to hear somebody wax poetic about chamomile.

As you might already know, One Seed Chicago–a partnership between NeighborSpace and GreenNet–is an urban greening project. Folks vote for their favorite seed from among three chosen each January 1st. Regardless of which seed you vote for, you receive a packet of the winning seed just for participating in the competition.

This year’s choice is among basil, chamomile and cilantro. Mr. Brown Thumb and I are lining up surrogates who are willing to defend their candidates on my show. I hope to announce those names next week. However, any and everybody is welcome to voice an opinion before and during the debate via email, Twitter and Facebook. Send in those comments now. I’ll post them on the Decision Chicago page (click on the image on the left) as I receive them.

And I’m still waiting to be bribed to throw my support to one of the seeds. Sheesh. What does it take in Chicago (!) to get a decent gift to help throw an election? C’mon, Chicagoans! Our checkered reputation is at stake!

Learning about and growing urban gardens in Chicago

A couple of years ago, I was hoping to set up a community garden in my neighborhood. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but Openlands Community Outreach Coordinator Julie Samuels, who is a friend and colleague of mine, told me about a half-day seminar that Openlands was sponsoring to help neighborhood groups plan and and build community gardens.

My community garden didn’t happen for another year, but I was able to use many of the lessons I learned at that seminar to help start Green on McLean at the end of my block. Two years after that first class, the HomeGrown Chicago Network has expanded to a four-week course that focuses on

  • Finding and securing land,
  • Establishing a sustainable organizational structure,
  • Designing a garden and growing food organically, and
  • Building garden structures.

I’ll be talking with Julie today about the program, which begins on March 24. It also provides customized workshops for garden groups; offers a program manual; donates lumber, soil, seeds, and other materials; and encourages participants to share advice and seeds at the beginning of each growing season. The cost is $150, which will cover four people from your gardening organization for the four-week course.

But wait, there’s more! That’s not the only gardening program that Openlands sponsors. If you hurry, you can still register for Building Urban Gardens (BUGs), which begins January 28 (next Saturday) at Garfield Park Conservatory. Whether you’re working in a community garden or you just want to grow plants in your own backyard, here’s what you’ll learn in this six-week course, which covers

  • Planning and Designing Your Ecological/Organic Garden
  • The Basis of an Organic Garden: Healthy Soil and Composting
  • Vegetables for Your Beautiful, Edible Garden
  • Perennials and Herbs for Diversity and Flavor!
  • Insects and Weeds: A Place for Everything & Everything in its Place
  • Container and Raised Bed Gardening.

Once you finish the BUGs course, you can join a citywide corps of volunteer gardeners who care for community spaces throughout Chicago. Openlands thanks the Dr. Scholl Foundation for its support of this program.

For more information about the class and to register, please contact Julie Samuels via e-mail or by phone at 312-863-6256.

Coal pollutes Chicago air while batteries go back to the landfills

I received a message this week from my friend Qae-Dah Muhammad, who is with the Ashe Park Advisory Council & Garden Club. She wrote:

Yes it is true. No more recycling your dead batteries. I searched for this information until my eyes watered. Went into the South Shore Library and my tired eyes landed on the flyer sitting on the information rack. The Illinois EPA says that you can throw them in the regular trash.

She included a link that sent me to the City of Chicago website, where this appears:

As of January 1, 2012, Chicago’s Battery Recycling Program has been discontinued, including collections at Chicago Public Libraries. Rechargeable batteries can still be recycled at multiple locations throughout Chicago, such as the Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility . Find additional locations at www.call2recycle.org .

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency recommends disposing of alkaline batteries with regular household trash. Alkaline batteries contain no hazardous waste and little recyclable materials. Previous environmental hazards associated with alkaline batteries were due to their mercury content.  The federal Battery Management Act of 1996 phased-out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries and today few, if any, alkaline batteries contain mercury.

My reaction could be categorized as WTF? I hadn’t heard about this at all and, as many of you know, I’m President of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. Oops. I called Mike Mitchell, Executive Director of the Illinois Recycling Association and he confirmed that the IEPA had made some kind of determination last year.

So I did some searching on both the Illinois Evironmental Protection Agency site and the EPA site. Nothing. Zip. Nada. If they are changing the rules regarding the disposal of household batteries, they are certainly keeping it quiet.

I am determined to find out what’s going on. I hope to contact the IEPA this week to get more information. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Meteorologist Rick DiMaio wrote today to tell me about this front page story in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune: Coal plants dominate list of Chicago’s biggest polluters. Ya think? Michael Hawthorne writes:

No other polluter comes close to the 4.2 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide churned into the atmosphere by the two coal plants in 2010, according to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database that for the first time allows people to compare major industrial sources of greenhouse gases

That’s why it is so important for the Chicago City Council to finally pass the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, reintroduced in late July 2011 by Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) and Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward). Considering that the ordinance has 35 co-sponsors, one wonders why it hasn’t been passed yet. It would require that the Fisk and Crawford coal plants reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50% and particulate matter by 90%.

Perhaps it’s time for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to step up and protect Chicago citizens from the ravages of these two ancient power plants, which continue to do more harm than good.

Still fighting to save Landreth Seeds

October 2 , 2011

Marketing Miracle? Landreth Seed Co. fights on

I began tellilng the story of the historic D. Landreth Seed Company a few weeks ago, after reading posts by Mr. Brown Thumb and following activity on Twitter and Facebook.

Basically, the oldest seed house in America is in deep financial trouble and is on a mission to sell one million dollars’ worth of catalogs in a very short time. Orginally, it was one month. Now, after weeks of good publicity in the traditional and social media, owner Barbara Melera, who I interviewed on September 11, thinks she may have bought herself another 60 days. She sent me a report of the developments in the past month. You can read the full report here. Here are some of the highlights:

The weekend of September 10-11, the orders started to ease, but our facebook genius, Christin, was contacting organizations like John Deere, ABC News, Oprah, etc. and our Fabulous Beekman Boys were lighting up TreeHugger and Planet Green. Mr.BrownThumb, a very popular Chicago-based blogger, made several posts, and during that weekend, on the Mike Nowak Radio Show in Chicago, I was invited to give an interview. By Monday, the order rate was again at about 1 per minute. Mike’s outreach to the Chicago community was impressive and sustained itself for almost 10 days.

Below is the comparison for facebook activity throughout the past month.

Monthly Active Users
# of Likes
Wall Posts

Most of the orders (more than 80%) were either for more than 1 catalog or a catalog and other product. I do not have firm numbers right now, but it looks like the average order size was about $20.00.

We have only had 2 organizations place a bulk order for catalogs for their constituents. This has been the only disappointment in this effort and it has proven to be a real impediment to driving the numbers substantially higher. We currently have one order for 100 catalogs and one order for 60 catalogs. The catalog would make a great giveaway for any of the audience driven TV shows like Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, Emeril, etc.

I believe, but I do not know, that we have made enough progress, that we can buy our selves another 60 days. We’ll see. We have been selling catalogs one person at a time throughout America. I told you at the start that I have always felt this was America’s company. This process has been uniquely American and if it succeeds, it is beginning to look like it will be exclusively American.

Here are the numbers as of Saturday, October 1: $7,643 via chipin and $122, 096 in
online orders plus $635 phone orders. Total – $130,374.

They still have a long way to go, which is why I’m happy to have Barb on the program again this morning. Once again, here are various links that you can use to get the word out: Facebook sites Landreth Seed Co, Save Landreth Seed Company, Order their 2012 Catalog!, and probably more. If you’re on Twitter, use the hashtag #savelandreth. If you just want to make a contribution, go to ChipIn.com and click the icon on the upper right hand side of the page.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals
Return to Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm

It’s been almost nine months since we visited with Jody and Beth Osmund from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Illinois. In their own words, “We raise and animals in ways that nurture and respect nature’s systems.” Cedar Valley is an old-fashioned family farm on the banks of Indian Creek, where Jody and Beth returned a few years ago to become sustainable farmers and raise their sons: Richard, Duncan and Jack.

Here’s their report on 2011 to date:

Our year has gone well, especially on the production end. Our meat chickens performed very well this season with better survivability and growth which allowed us to finish our season a few weeks early. Also, some small innovations on the farm paid big dividends in labor savings. CSA sales growth has slowed, however, our numbers are a bit ahead of last year. With more marketing efforts this fall and winter, we plan to spark more growth of the CSA. As part of that effort, Cedar Valley Sustainable Farmstays in touch with its customers and members through a Facebook page.

Jody continues his work on the Illinois Local, Food, Farms, and Jobs Council  to help foster our local food economy with the goal of all state institutions sourcing 20% of their food needs in IL by 2020. Policy wins in 2011 include passage of the Illinois Cottage Foods bill and the establishment of the the Illinois Farmers Market Task Force. The whole family participated in Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s lobby day last spring–working for passage of these bills.

Along with Greg Gunthorp, an innovative hog and poultry grazier in Indiana, Jody is serving on a grant advisory panel for the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT). The grants which will begin next spring, will help livestock farmers move toward more humane management practices that emphasize grazing. There will be a Fund-A-Farmer launch party October 24th at Uncommon Ground in Chicago at 7:00pm. Jody will speak about Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm’s practices and its pioneering Meat CSA program.

Next week, Beth will continue to hone her organizational skills and explore future leadership roles by attending the White House Project’s Go Run event in Northbrook, IL.

Jody & Beth continue other leadership roles serving on the vendor board for the Logan Square Farmers Market and serving as farmer faculty for CRAFT’s Farm Beginnings farmer training program and the Michael Fields Agriculture Institute. They continue to guide the North Central Illinois Farmer Network greenfarmers. In January, Beth and Jody will be presenters at the Illinois Organic and Specialty Crop Conference. We are, also, a soccer family. CVSF sponsors a team. Jody coaches two rec. league teams, and their oldest has joined the Chicago Magic travel soccer club. Needless to say, our schedule is very full.

Yikes! And I thought I was busy. Not only that, but they wrote that whole report. I’m thinking of hiring Jody and Beth to do my website work each Saturday. Of course, I can’t afford them. As always, my thanks to the great folks at Angelic Organics Learning Center for connecting me with great farms like Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm.

Eco-system restoration as a fall (and winter) sport

Stephen Packard is a bit of an icon in the Chicago and Midwest environmental community. He has long been involved with the National Audubon Society, Chicago Region, as well as Chicago Wilderness, The Nature Conservancy and more. He has developed programs of restoration and monitoring for tallgrass prairie, savanna, woodland and wetland ecosystems.

So I was surprised and pleased when I received an email from him this week asking me if I would be willing to talk about a first-of-its-kind restoration project at Deer Grove East in Palatine, which has its kickoff celebration this Saturday, October 8 at 10:00 a.m.

Packard joins me this morning and says that, in the past, when a concerned group of citizens wanted to restore a natural ecosystem to a developed area, it was often take decades of work with handsaws, loppers and people ripping out invasive annuals and perennials. But thanks to an infusion of $2.5 million from Openlands, the area was cleared with bulldozers, back hoes and brush clearing machines to re-establish the wetlands and generally get the project off to a running start.

This is a unique opportunity for residents, families and friends of all ages to learn how to be a preserve steward (or to help teach others, if you already know) for prairies, wetlands and woodlands. You can also work with experts like Packard, Doug Stotz (Field Museum ornithologist, author and Amazon explorer), Linda Masters (Openlands restoration ecologist who has been managing the professionals who’ve started the project), and Bill Koenig (Forest Preserve District volunteer coordinator). They will not be lecturing–instead, they will be giving one-on-one lessons about the ecosystems while you work with them. It sounds like a fabulous and unique opportunity.

For two years, professionals working with Openlands have cut 125 acres of brush, controlled 150 acres of noxious weeds, planted 52 acres of wetland and 66 acres of prairie and are working on 50 acres of oak woodland. Total project area so far: 175 acres. But this work just gets the ball rolling. Many of the most crucial parts over the next few years will depend on trained and empowered volunteers who will learn how to start on the 8th.

Here’s how the day will work:

  • Refreshments 10:00 AM –
    Gather just beyond the west end of the Deer Grove East parking area.
  • 10:15 AM – Short Informational Program
  • 10:30 AM – Tours Begin (Dress for weather & possible wet or muddy ground)
  • 11:30 AM – Return for Refreshments, Q&A, Meet the Experts
  • Noon – Additional Tours available for interested parties

For directions and more information go to the Dear Grove East website, (still under construction). The reason for the headline of this article is that once work begins on a site like this, it never really ends. So be prepared to work through the fall, into the winter and beyond. But in the service of making the earth whole again, how can you really call it work?

Will Chicago finally get real recycling?

The world changes tomorrow. Well, perhaps only if you live in Chicago and you happen to have a blue recycling cart.

That’s the day that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “managed competition” program starts. For the next six months, three groups will be engaged in a head to head to head battle for the right to run all or part of Chicago’s recycling program: Department of Streets and Sanitation workers, Waste Management and Sims Metal Management Municipal Recycling. Before Richard M. Daley left office, his administration devised a plan to divide the city into six service areas, all of which were to be outsourced to private companies.

Mayor Emanuel modified that plan by assigning two of those areas to city employees to see if they can effectively compete with private companies. Waste Management is responsible for three areas and Sims has one. The City is giving all three groups exactly six months to prove that they can handle Chicago’s recycling efficiently and, at the same time, help cut into the city’s massive budget deficit. At that time, reportedly, a cost-benefit analysis will determine which group(s) will continue to handle recycling. (The map of how the city is divided into service areas is on the home page of this website.)

As you might know, I am the president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition (full disclosure: I do not receive a penny for my work there. I wish I did make money and I would be happy to disclose that, too.) We at the CRC have a few questions about this “competition” that will play out over the next six months.

Among the questions: What are the exact criteria for the cost-benefit analysis? How fair will the competition be, and how transparent? Is six months is enough time to determine whether a recycling group should be locked in for the next seven years? And on and on. Log onto the CRC website to keep abreast of what we discover over the next few months. Meanwhile, if you live in Chicago and want more information about the blue cart recycling changes, log onto the Chicago Recycling Coaltion or this City of Chicago web page.