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October 19, 2014

The City of Chicago picks up your yard waste...finally...kind of...

Let me start by pointing out what I think of as the obvious: 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.

That said, if you live in the City of Chicago and you wonder what happens when a sanitation crew picks up your yard waste... you're not the only one. In fact, if you pay attention to things like this, you might have noticed that the City rarely says anything at all about yard waste. That's because it hasn't been on their radar for, oh, forever.

Allow me to explain. In the late 1980s,, the Illinois General Assembly passed several laws to deal with solid waste disposal in the state. This Summary of Illinois' Solid Waste Legislation explains that

Illinois does not have an omnibus law that deals wi th solid waste management issues; many separate pieces of legislation focus on waste reduction and recycling. The three major laws that impact and guide the pr ograms and functions of the Division of Recycling and Wast e Reduction, Illinois Energy Office, Illinois Depar tment of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's (DCEO) are the Illinois Solid Waste Management Act, the Illinois S olid Waste Planning and Recycling Act, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Act.

With regard to yard waste, you need to look at the Environmental Protection Act, which, among other things, banned landscape waste (grass, leaves and brush) from being landfilled effective July 1, 1990.

However, if you have a moment, take a look at the City of Chicago's own records from its recycling program for the last few years:


I call your attention in those charts to the second column on the right, the one called "Yard Waste%." Spoiler alert: you're going to see a string of zeroes under that column, going all the way back to 2010.

What does that mean? It means, basically, that the City of Chicago has not been picking up yard waste separate from other recyclables and waste. Which means that if it gets picked up at all, it must be ending up in landfills which seems to be in violation of state law.

I'll pause to let that sink in.

The good news is that the City, perhaps in part at the urging of the Chicago Recycling Coalition (full disclosure: I am currently its non-paid president), has just announced what it calls Chicago's Citywide Clean and Green Volunteer Program. From their website:

On Saturday, November 8, 2014, Chicagoans can join a two decade long tradition of teaming up with community groups and the City of Chicago to help beautify your communities by cleaning up and recycling fall leaves and other yard debris. All you have to do is team up and sign up to clean a neighborhood location near you. By cleaning up leaves and other debris, you can help keep storm drains and curb lanes clear before snowfall this winter benefiting your whole community.

Farther down the page, Streets and San says that

Through the Clean and Green effort to clean up leaves and other debris before winter, the Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) is coordinating dedicated bagged leaf collection for residents for three weeks this November.

  • 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.

My friend Betsy Vandercook, who is chief of staff for Alderman Joe Moore in the 49th Ward, notes that "clean-up" day has nothing to do with the 311 yard-waste-pickups... For the clean-up day,  volunteers are given heavy-duty plastic bags, gloves, shovels, etc, usually in the ward office, and go out to pick up mostly litter, from empty whiskey bottles to used diapers (hey, it's a city). There is some clearing leaves from sewer openings, but even those bags will contain sludge and trash. So there will be no effort (nor should there be) to compost them.  When filled, the bags are cinched and left out on corners; later a DSS garbage truck comes by and picks them up. After a few hours of work, the volunteers are then usually treated to a lunch at the ward office.

Which means that most of the stuff picked up on the work day, whether it is November 8 (or October 25, as it is in my 26th Ward), will not be composted. Furthermore, if you want to have your leaves and yard waste composted, you must calll 311 between November 3 and November 21. Which means you must "opt in" to the program, or your stuff won't be collected.

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?

That said, I hope that my fellow citizens of Chicago will get involved in the Clean and Green effort in the next few weeks. I also hope that the City of Chicago starts to take seriously their responsibility to compost our yard waste, rather than dumping it into landfills. "Greenest city in the world" indeed.

The scourge of Emerald Ash Borer takes a turn for the worse

I received an email recently from the State of Illinois regarding the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). EAB, to make a horrific story short, is an Asian insect (Agrilus planipennis) that showed up around 2002 near Detroit and since that time has been responsible for the death of tens of millions of ash trees (genus Fraxinus),

Since its discover in Michigan, it has spread to Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. In the process, it has killed tens of millions of ash trees.

If you look at Illinois alone, the 10,000 ash trees in Tinley Park are scheduled to be cut down. Lake Forest has another 1700 on its hit list. The University of Chicago is not immune from the EAB attack and is scheduled to remove a half mile of ash trees along the Midway Plaisance. And unless there is some kind of breakthrough to stem the destructive wave, EAB is likely to wipe out most of the 8.7 billion ash trees in North America.

Think that can't happen? It already has. Between about 1900 and 1940, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 billion American chestnut trees were lost to a fungus that was introduced to this continent, perhaps by our own horticultural industry, which introduced Japanese chestnut stock that carried the pathogen.

Many of us remember the American elm-lined streets of our childhoods, which are now gone. You can blame the so-called Dutch elm disease, caused by yet another fungus, and spread by the elm bark beetle. This disease started in Europe, where it is still devastatting stands of elms, and spread to North America, where it changed the landscape of urban areas forever. In fact, many municipalities replaced their American elms with various species of ash trees, sometimes almost to the exclusion of other genuses. Uh...can you say, "lesson not learned?"

Welcome to the 21st Century, where ash and almost every other kind of tree seems to be under attack. So it wasn't surprising that I received an email from the State of Illinois this week that announced that EAB has been confirmed in 14 new counties in this state alone:

"The quarantine boundaries obviously will have to be amended to include the new detections in Logan, Menard, Perry, Sangamon and Williamson counties,  as well as two other counties outside the quarantine, Peoria and Tazewell, where EAB was detected for the first time earlier this year," Warren Goetsch, Illinois Department of Agriculture Bureau Chief of Environmental Programs, said.  "We will do that after all of our findings are in, which should be by November."

While the news is not good, it was to be expected. We are in the age of globalization. Invasive species are appearing all over the planet (believe me, there are Asians cursing North America for the pathogens that we have unleashed on their plants and animals.) Still, we can't sit still and wait for the invading organisms to take over our part of the world.

Which is why it was so interesting to receive, in the same week, a missive from my friend and arborist Guy Sternberg. Guy and Edie Sternberg are the people who started Starhill Forest Arboretum in Menard County, Illinois. In October 2008, Guy and Edie formalized their partnership with Illinois College, creating the College's official arboretum.

When he wrote to me this week, Guy reported on an effort in central Illinois to save four--count 'em, 4!--magnificent ash trees. He writes:

In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted tree seedlings along Illinois Highways 29, 125, and 97 from Springfield toward Lincoln’s New Salem as part of the State’s first highway beautification project. Some of those historic trees still exist today, including four grand ash trees (genus Fraxinus) along Route 97 near Salisbury.

One white ash and three green ash (two males trees and one female) can be seen along the road right of way there. They offer aesthetic contributions to the otherwise agricultural landscape as well as providing valuable wildlife habitat. They also have served for years as educational specimens for teaching students how to identify the two most common Illinois ash species (seen across the road from each other south of Salisbury), how gender dimorphism is expressed in trees (green ash seen adjacent to each other west of Salisbury), and how much the trees have grown since being planted in 1934...

Now, as of October 2014, the Chinese emerald ash borer has arrived in the area. In order to preserve these four mature trees for people to see after the borer kills every other ash along the highways throughout central Illinois and beyond, we will need to treat them. Other, less spectacular roadside ash trees must be allowed to die from borer damage because of the cost that would be involved in saving all of them. As we lose hundreds of thousands of ash trees across the region, these four splendid trees will remain to remind the next human generation of what we once had. Further, they will serve as inspiration for the ash selection and breeding programs that eventually will give us back our native ash trees. This research is already underway.

We propose to treat these four trees for about a decade, or until other ash all have been killed by the borer and the population of the insect crashes due to lack of food and breeding sites. We then hope to be able to back off to a low frequency, maintenance application protocol. Meanwhile, research will continue into finding organic (“biological”) controls and into the increasing importance of native woodpeckers in controlling the borer. In time, we may be able to allow the trees to stand with no further intervention.

If you read between the lines, we're talking about creating a kind of "living museum" for as long as we think it's necessary. Whoa. Have some of our iconic species come to that?

Regardless, if you're interested you can send a check to “INPS-Central” with the notation “ash fund”. Mail it to Starhill Forest Arboretum, 12000 Boy Scout Trail, Petersburg, Illinois 62675, along with your e-mail and other contact information for future updates and acknowledgment. Questions may be directed to Guy Sternberg at

But I haven't finished with the bad news. It now looks as though EAB might have spread to Chionanthus virginicus, also known as fringetree. Don't believe me? Here's another article, smarty pants. In fact, Guy Sternberg wrote to me that

EAB attacks other trees in China, including even some that are not in the ash family (e.g., elm, walnut). Next we should look for them coming out of their little "D" holes in Forestiera, Ligustrum, Fontanesia, Syringa, and Forsythia -- all in the Oleaceae (ash family). They have already been found via testing in Michigan to use Ligustrum (privet). 

Hubboy. Guy Sternberg joins me to talk about this issue today.

The Green Festival returns to Chicago

The Green Festival bills itself as "America's largest and longest-running sustainability and green living event. We bring together the world's most trusted companies, innovative brands, national and local businesses, pioneering thinkers, and conscious consumers in one place to promote the best in sustainability and green living."

Well, it certainly is large, if you consider that there are now presentations in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and, of course, Chicago.

Chicago's version of the Green Festival returns to Navy Pier October 24th, 25th and 26th with the kind of stuff you would expect:

from food, fashion and health, to energy, construction and design. Enjoy vegan and vegetarian cooking demos, educational activities for kids and families, panels featuring inspirational speakers, and live music and entertainment. Shop in our unique marketplace of more than 250 eco-friendly businesses - everything from all-natural body care products and organic clothing to Fair Trade gifts, beautiful home renovations made from renewable resources, plus vegan and vegetarian offerings based on organic, non-GMO or local, artisanal foods.

And a lot of speakers--50 or so, at last count. Two of them appear on my show this morning.

Cassie Carroll is Executive Director and one of the prime movers behind an the Illinois Green Business Association (IGBA), a non-profit that helps businesses implement sustainable practices, demonstrating that sustainability can be profitable.

From its origin as a student organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007, the organization has grown to help more than 3,000 businesses to implement green practices, certified over 1 million square feet of business space as sustainable affecting over 1,400 employees and has helped Illinois businesses reduce 5 million kWh of energy – enough energy to power about 460 homes for one year. IGBA's certification program is ranked the #2 most-trustworthy green certification in the nation by

Some of their latest initiatives include

- Growing the number of businesses implementing green businesses in Illinois (expanding reach, building an online infrastructure for green accreditation, growing partnerships)

- Inviting individuals, businesses, municipalities, higher ed, etc., to take the first step in going green by pledging to support sustainable business in IL by becoming a Green Business Ally.

Carroll says that the goal of her presentation at Green Festival is to

 inspire Green Festival attendees to support green business and infrastructure in their local communities, highlighting that implementing green practices and projects create more stable, profitable local economies that are cleaner, healthier, more resilient. Additionally, it will cover opportunities for Green Festival attendees to be sustainable in their own lives, learning from these leading IL examples. 

Linda Booker produced and directed the documentary “Bringing It Home," which was made in an effort to educate consumers and lawmakers about hemp's many beneficial uses. She notes on her website about the film that

More industrial hemp is exported to the U.S. than to any other country and American consumers are purchasing over $450 million in hemp products annually. BRINGING IT HOME explores the question of why a crop with so many widespread benefits cannot be farmed in the United States by illustrating its history, current industries and talking to both opponents and proponents of the industrial hemp farming legalization effort.

The story centers on environmentally-conscious home designer Anthony Brenner's attempt to find the healthiest building material available to build a safe indoor environment for his young daughter Bailey, who has a rare genetic disorder and sensitivity to synthetic chemicals. He settles on hemp, which is an incredibly versatile material, to build a hempcrete, toxin-free home for his daughter.

Unfortunately, due to our counterproductive laws that harken back to our concerns over "Reefer Madness," hemp is a fiber that must be imported. Booker's documentary examines the worldwide industries that have benefited from the cultivation of this useful plant.

It's a pleasure to have Cassie and Linda on my show this morning.





Edie and Guy Sternberg


At last year's Green Festival in Chicago

At last year's Green Festival

Cassie Carroll

Linda Booker