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Looking Beyond the Landfill: Touring Waste Management Facilities

08.21.14 | Announcements
This dusty pile of construction and demolition debris is just a portion of what a materials recovery facility processes.

This dusty pile of construction and demolition debris is just a portion of what a materials recovery facility processes.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a few Delta team members set out to get a behind-the-scenes look at the waste management system in the Chicago Metropolitan Area. They joined other interested citizens and environmentalists on a Southeast Environmental Task Force Brown Bag Eco-Tour that took them through some of the more hands-on steps of our waste disposal system.

The tour started at a materials recovery station, found in the stockyards of Chicago, which shed light on what really goes on after you throw things “away.” This transfer station, located among the buildings that used to comprise the historic Chicago meat packing industry, is operated by workers who sort our trash by hand. Working in 10-15 person teams, they stand on either side of a conveyor belt to make sure that the recyclables don’t make it into landfills.

The tour then moved on to a water reclamation plant, in which sewage is broken down by various biological agents, water is cleaned, and waste is dried out to make commercial fertilizer. This process is much more environmentally friendly than the practices of Chicago’s past, and is likely a major contributor to the improving health of Chicago’s waterways of today.

Next stop on the tour – landfills. As Cook County currently has a ban on new landfill development and current landfills are quickly filling up, our team was able to see how these landfills are being re-purposed to transform a liability into an asset. They visited one landfill that was currently operating and another that had been re-purposed into a golf course.

Finally, the group visited a few scrapyards located southwest of the city close to the Indiana-Illinois state border. In addition to the stacks of old cars, the tour revealed a pile of Petroleum Coke (petcoke)that could cover multiple city blocks, and it was located within eyesight of residential housing. Petcoke is a by-product of oil refineries for which we currently have no method of disposal. As petcoke dust becomes airborne and is inhaled, it can contribute to respiratory diseases such as asthma.

With Delta’s expanding portfolio of waste work, the tour made our opaque waste system more tangible and reinforced the importance of building a more sustainable waste system. Martin Brown, a Delta staff member remarked, “As a resident, I was really amazed at how we create so many different types of waste. You don’t really think about all the types of waste that we create beyond throwing trash away, and recycling, but it is important to consider the other types of waste like sewage, abandoned buildings, scrap and even byproducts from the energy we use such as petcoke. It really opened my eyes to the system as a whole.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Chicagoland’s waste system, we highly recommend visiting the Southeast Environmental Taskforce’s website. Check it out here.