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November 16, 2014

Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot...Repeat

What can you say about a woman who once received a twenty-five thousand dollar award for spreading the word about Zero Waste...and then sent it back to the presenters so that it could be reused for the following year's winner?

Well, you can certainly say that she practices what she preaches. Her name is Bea Johnson and she has a blog and a book by the same name: Zero Waste Home. She and her family are dedicated to living a zero waste lifestyle; they generate a mere quart size jar of waste per year. Yes, you read that correctly.

Her philosophy is embodied in the Five Rs:

  • Refuse (what we do not need)
  • Reduce (what we do need and cannot refuse)
  • Reuse (what we consume and cannot refuse or reduce)
  • Recycle (what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse)
  • Rot (compost the rest)

To that I would add a Sixth R: Repeat (as often as possible).

Johnson takes pains in her book to point out that following the Five Rs in order will result in very little waste. But, as she writes,

This is not a book about achieving absolute Zero Waste. Considering the manufacturing practices in place, it is evident that absolute Zero Waste is not possible today. Zero Waste is an idealistic goal, a carrot to get as close as possible. Not everyone who reads this book will be able to implement all that I mention or be able to go as far as reducing his/her yearly household waste output to the size of a quart jar, as my family has. Based on my blog readers' feedback, geographic and demographic disparities come into play in determining how close to Zero Waste one can get. But how much waste one generates is not important. What matters is understanding the effect of our purchasing power on the environment and acting accordingly. Everyone can adopt the changes that are possible in their life. And any small change toward sustainability will have a positive effect on our planet and society.

With that, Johnson takes a hard look at every single aspect of our lives:

  • the food we buy and how we process and store it
  • the toiletries, medicines and personal products that inhabit our bathrooms
  • what we sleep with and on
  • what we wear and why
  • how we keep our houses clean and with what kinds of products
  • what's in our workspaces and in our (real, not virtual) mailboxes
  • what we allow and encourage our children to posses
  • how to keep the holidays simple and meaningful

and much more. Actually, it's a little bit overwhelming if you've never gone down this road before. Even though I'm already aware of much of what Johnson writes about, taking all of it in at once is a bit like being hit by a phaser on "stun."

That's why Bea Johnson joins us this morning, to help clarify and perhaps ease us into something that is very important for us as a society and for our planet in general.

One, final yard waste pick up reminder

Speaking of waste, if you live in the City of Chicago, this is the final week during which you can have your yard waste picked up and put into a composting operation. Here's how it works, according to the Streets and Sanitation Department website:

  • From November 3, through November 21, 2014, residents can call 311 to request bagged leaf and yard waste collection.
  • A Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) truck will collect leaves and other yard waste separately based on the 311 calls and take the yard waste to be composted.
  • Collection will occur during the week it is called into 311.
  • Residents should bag the yard waste separately from garbage in the black carts and recycling in the Blue Carts.
  • Residents should leave the bagged yard waste in the alley or on the curb for collection.

As a reminder, yard waste should not be thrown in the Blue Cart as it contaminates the recycling stream.

As I have said recently, I have several issues with the way the City is handling this.

  • "Opt in" programs are historically not as successful as city-wide efforts. How many people do you think are going to call 311 to have their yard waste picked up?
  • The time frame--November 3 to 21--is a little late in the game to be picking up fall yard waste. A lot of work will be finished by then. Heck, I'm pretty sure our first snow storm happened before November 21 in 2013.
  • This seems like a half-hearted attempt to follow the letter of the law. Will we have more yard waste pickup in the spring and throughout the growing season, starting in April of 2015?

And now, on top of this, it looks as though we might have snow(!) this week, which could make those efforts a lot harder. (Please see my note above about the late time frame.)

I have heard reports from people who have said that the 3-1-1 wait time is impossible. I have heard from others who say that their yard waste was picked up promptly. If you have a comment, write to me at

Meanwhile, when it comes to leaves and plant material and other "yard waste," the best thing you can do with it is to compost it yourself in your own yard. If you have any questions, check with Illinois Extension.

Fracking emerges from a smoke-filled room to invade Illinois

A little more than a week ago, fracking became a reality in Illinois. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) approved rules for hydraulic fracturing in the state, following a process that took more than sixteen months to play out--from the signing of the new law, through the development of Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) regulations, to public comment over those regs, to a second IDRN draft, which was left in the hands of JCAR to finalize.

Unfortunately, when JCAR voted 11-1 to approve the final version of the rules, they did not immediately make that version public, sparking outrage from the environmental community, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which had been involved in the negotiations about the orginal law. In fact, the process itself was held behind closed doors--reportedly with industry representatives present but environmental representatives excluded.

Is that true? Well, the nature of secrecy is that we don't know. Jeff Biggers wrote a scathing story in the Huffington Post, quoting Annette McMichael from Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE):

The rules were negotiated behind closed doors, without meaningful scientific review...We are not allowed to review the new rules until Nov. 15 when they are posted on the Illinois Register. There is no doubt they will be woefully inadequate to protect Illinois residents from the known harms horizontal fracking has brought to residents across America.

Now, the regulations have finally been released and...surprise! It looks as though McMichael might indeed be right.

NRDC Senior Attorney Ann Alexander writes,

All in all, the results provide a sad object lesson in what happens when you exclude the public from a process that directly affects it.  DNR's concessions to industry on any given issue may not have seemed particularly important to government officials behind the locked doors, but are plenty important to the citizens who now have to live with the decision made without their input.

So we'll say it once again:  addressing fracking and its formidable risks through the Illinois political process, rather than setting up open and systematic deliberations involving the people bearing those risks, was asking for trouble from the get-go.  But we have what we have – which, we continually bear in mind, beats the fracking wild west we started out with before the statute was passed last year.

She then goes on to list various ways that the final rules have been compromised. They include

  • Elimination of decisionmaking criteria. 
  • More burdensome hearing request requirements.
  • Elimination of the “adversely affected” definition.
  • Elimination of discretionary setbacks.
  • Scaled back regulation of radioactivity contamination.
  • Weakened definition of “wholly contained.
  • Application requirements downgraded to “additional” status.
  • Limited duty to investigate geologic conditions.

She admits that it's a "long, sad list," while arguing that it's better than IDNR's intial draft. To get a better sense of what's good and what's bad, I suggest that your read her whole post.

Meanwhile, the NRDC's Josh Mogerman joins me this morning to help clarify the new rules and to explain how badly they were compromised by the secrecy of JCAR's deliberations.

FOTP makes good on its promise to protect the Chicago lakefront

Last week, I interviewed FOTP President Cassandra Francis about the controversial proposal to put the $400 million Lucas Museum of Narrative Art smack dab on the Chicago lakefront, between Soldier Field and McCormick Place.

In that conversation, which you can find in this podcast, we talked about the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. In theory, it is supposed to prohibit private development east of Lake Shore Drive, after McCormick Place and Lake Point Tower managed to get through the barn doors. But almost one hundred and eighty years after the words "forever open, clear and free" were first applied to the Chicago lakefront, the pressure to violate that proclamation, either in letter or spirit, continues. As long as powerful people have money and influence, our precious lakeshore will be in danger.

Well, this past week, FOTP decided that it would stand up for that ordinance by suing the City of Chicago over its machinations to site the museum on land that is now used as a parking lot for Soldier Field. Cassandra Francis is quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Particularly in the last month, possibly in response to the design and also the fact that people are a little bit concerned about the fact that this was presented as a done deal, that has really galvanized the public's opposition to this project. I do believe that is growing...

We will continue to do all that we can to frame that growing voice and momentum . . .  [so] we can continue to build [support]. If it becomes an election issue, so be it.”

I'm all for that. Are you paying attention, mayoral candidates Alderman Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia?






Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home






Diagram of hydraulic fracturing--fracking



Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council