Chicago’s 80-year-old recycling leader blames city for damage to center

For Ken Dunn, the tracks told the story.

Dan, a pioneer in Chicago’s recycling for four decades, got to work the morning of August 3 to find chewed-up curbs and heavy tire tracks in the parking lot next to his North Side drop-off center for glass, metal, paper and plastic.

He said that the large metal shipping containers that Dan uses to transport 30 tons of recyclables per week have been attacked by heavy machinery, and their doors have been smashed and holes have been made in their walls.

Dunn said trolleys, boxes, ladders and tarps are missing, as well as $5,000 worth of tools. Someone removed the shelves with free books and toys for the kids.

Dunn speculated that the hackers rammed large tractors into his cargo containers and took or disposed of the lost items, costing him $20,000 he didn’t have.

He thinks he knows who did it.

The plastics are headed to surplus recycling at the North Park Village recycling plant drop site, which processes about 30 tons of recycling per week.

What happened in the early morning hours at Dunn’s North Park Village recycling station is still in dispute with the chief of Dunn. nonprofit resource centersaying Chicago streets and sanitation workers caused the damage, and the city said workers were only cleaning up a site that had been the subject of numerous complaints.

What is clear is that the 40-year-old recycling plant is now struggling.

During a recent visit, Dunn pointed out bags of plastic bottles and jugs that were piling up. A volunteer said she’s worried that Dan, 80, is working too hard while trying to catch up, and Dunn said he recently started looking for emergency loans.

“We’re working and open, but it’s killing us economically to take this loss,” Dunn said.

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sewers issued a written statement that said: “Following numerous complaints from residents about trash and debris at the North Park Recycling Center, the city cleaned up the property on August 3, 2022.”

Dunn described that version of events as “amazing”.

“Sometimes you clean with a broom and a shovel — sometimes you clean with a big jar that crushes most of the things you knock on,” Dunn said dryly.

Residents unload recyclables at the drop-off site of the North Park Village recycling station on September 27, 2022.

In response to Dunn’s specific complaints, Streets and Sanitation said, “The North Park Village recycling station is located on city-owned land. Cleaning was completed during normal business hours, and no items were damaged or stolen during the cleaning process.”

The department also showed “before” photos showing some rubbish or recyclables disassembled at the site, some large green plastic bags of material piled along the fence and some large items that appear to be lying around, like an old mattress.

Dunn said illegal dumping was a problem at the site, and he requested a non-dumping sign from the city the day before the accident.

During a recent visit to the recycling station, the items waiting to be recycled looked clean and there were no odors. The metal containers were weather-dried—one in use since 1971—and the letters on them were hand-drawn. Dozens of trash bags filled with plastic were piled 6 feet high along the fence. Dunn said plastics were piling up as he scrambled to repair the damage on Aug. 3.

The overall effect was a bit ramshackle, but cheerful and structured, with volunteer Linda Young, who is retired, saying Dan has a strong local following.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Lots of people help him and love him because of what he does. You see, we bring our stuff here because he cares about the environment.”

Ken Dunn crushes an aluminum can at the landing site of the North Park Village recycling plant on September 27, 2022.

This isn’t the first time Dunn, the son of a Kansas farmer who studied for his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, has faced a setback in his quest to make Chicago a greener place.

He’s been fighting a lonely battle at times since he began converting vacant Southside lots into community gardens in the 1970s.

When Chicago started its first local recycling program under Mayor Harold Washington, Dunn ran a demo project for the show in the Beverly neighborhood of the Southwest Side. At one point, the Resource Center reported that about 60% of Beverly residents separated newspapers, aluminum cans and other recyclables from their trash and left them on the sidewalk in blue bins, according to the Associated Press.

Dunn said some city officials tried to terminate the recycling contract when Washington died in 1987. He went to court and won, but he suspected he had made enemies along the way.

Dunn said that in the early 1990s, city officials rescinded his permit to recycle at the North Park Village recycling station site, but public support — and periodic help from public figures — allowed it to remain open.

Among those who have come to Dan’s defense over the years has been Chicago Tribune columnist John Cass, who defended the North Park Village recycling station during the 1997 debate over whether to replace it with more parking space for the Gymnastics Center.

Cass wrote that the center is “a bit of messy charm and the kind of special place worth saving.”

Through it all, Dan has developed a wide range of sustainability projects, including composting, recycling, food recovery and urban agriculture.

“Kane has been an important player in Chicago’s green initiatives over the past few decades,” said Sadhu Johnston, the city’s chief environmental officer from 2005 to 2009.

Ken Dunn works on a truck at the landing site at the North Park Village recycling station.

Johnston said he couldn’t comment on the current controversy because he didn’t know the details, but when he was in Chicago, Dunn was a role model: “He was really innovative, and he was down to earth doing a really important job.”

Johnston added, “From what I can tell, Ken is working at the grassroots level and working with very few resources, and the result of that can be chaotic. I can broadly understand that he’s working that the city wants to make sure that it’s done in a way that doesn’t cause a problem (for the neighbors).”

The Tribune ranked Dunn as the greenest man in Chicago in 2008, based on a detailed analysis of his personal carbon footprint. Dunn produced just 3,800 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, compared to the 44,000 pounds produced by the average American, according to an analysis in the Tribune.

In 2007, Chicago Magazine published a profile titled “Someone give this guy a genius giftKen Dunn embodies an American archetype of intelligence, an extraordinary blend of farmer and philosopher. He might be the smartest guy in town. He grows wonderful tomatoes. “

Dan’s hair was gray, his face lined during a recent interview, but his blue eyes sparkled as if he were talking about a imitation meadow he had built on an urban farm in Washington Park.

There is a clay lining so that the water does not drain away from the roots of the plants, with highly absorbent wood chips and compost on top. Even with today’s high levels of precipitation, Dunn said, there is no runoff.

“I even got a fine from the city for building this farm without draining the rainwater,” he said with a chuckle. “They wanted that storm water – why would they want storm water? I want it for my plants.”

Compost and wood chips retain water, so even after a month of no rain, you won’t have to water plants with roots longer than 4 inches.

And in an age when climate change is causing torrential rains and concerns about flooded basements, Dunn sees another potential benefit: “We can’t keep building sewers bigger because it’s going to get worse, but we can make every garden and every backyard (a meadow tradition maintain) Rain water where it falls.”

One of his favorite topics is recycling itself, and specifically, his objections to single-stream recycling, where consumers don’t have to sort out recyclables. A single flush is appropriate and may encourage wider participation, but contamination can render materials unrecyclable.

afternoon briefing

afternoon briefing

daily

Chicago Tribune editors’ top picks are delivered to your inbox every afternoon.

“Would you rather be told it was recycled—even though you might not know it was being recycled—or would you rather be clear that it was completely recycled?” Asked.

Ken Dunn works on a container full of newsprint at the landing site for his North Park Village Recycling Station.

While Dunn was talking, people were walking around inside, dropping off plastic bowls and metal cans.

“I love this place,” said Rick Ratliff, 53, of Old Irving Park, who said he’s been bringing in recyclables for 30 years. “You know, I really love coming here and making sure things get recycled.”

However, volunteer Young was heartbroken when she talked about what it was like before. She spread her arms out to indicate the size of the “free stuff” shelf that disappeared on August 3. It was an armpit height and 5 feet wide, she said, and local teachers would sometimes come with their classes and let excited children choose free books.

She added that there were trolleys and platforms with wheels to facilitate customer visits. There were neat piles of newspapers, stacked to the appropriate height in giant metal containers.

“I wish with all my heart and soul that we had the pictures to show you how organized they are,” Young said.

nschoenberg@chicagotribune.com

Leave a Comment