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Citizens vs Patriot Acres: A Compost Controversy in Chicagoland

25 May , 2017  

Patriot Acres' Site Plan in Des Plaines, IL near Chicago

When it comes to issues concerning our global economic and ecological future, it is all too easy to frame the discussion as a binary debate. Corporations vs The People. Capitalists vs Anti-capitalists. Hawks vs DovesSuch framing is convenient for high-level or conceptual discussions of what should be done. For example, on the question of whether climate legislation should be enacted, we often hear talk of legislators who are "deniers" being against, and those who are "believers" being for.

However, when the rubber meets the road, and something must be done, the story is typically less black and white. In this case, a seemingly simple question of zoning for a compost facility near Chicago brought out a wide range of beliefs, emotions and economic arguments. The story is telling of the very non-binary debates and real decisions that must be made as true sustainability is ushered in.

In May I attended a Cook County board meeting, where I provided a public statement about composting and the ecological future of the Chicago region. The meeting’s main agenda item was approval of a special use permit for Patriot Acres, LLC to operate an industrial compost facility in Des Plaines, a suburb of Chicago within the same county. The comments from residents, lawyers, business owners, and environmental groups – all jammed into an hour-long commentary period – came from the entire spectrum of priorities one might have for a community.

I felt afterward that I had peered into a microcosm of the globe-spanning challenge of true sustainability. Here are some of the most important factors to be worked out on the road to sustainability, and how they manifested at a humble county board meeting:

Demystifying Waste

Composting is best defined as a manufacturing process. The final products are soil nutrients, refined from inputs such as branches, grass clippings and food scraps. Viewed as a factory, with raw materials coming in and salable products moving out, composting claims its rightful spot in the economy; as a core production activity, rather than a production afterthought.

Unfortunately, the conversation at the committee meeting still revolved around Patriot Acres as a “waste” handling facility. This catch-all category of “waste” must be done away with in a society that strives for efficiency and ecological integrity. There are materials to be better managed, products to be redesigned, and chemical compounds to be handled efficiently, but there is no single thing that is inherently waste. This shift in terminology will help move our action on “waste” upstream, to the design of and demand for products. Once upstream, we can envision what local organization Plant Chicago calls “a circular, closed-loop model of material reuse.”

In my statement to the committee, I cited a recent State of Illinois report on waste generation, which showed that in Northeast Illinois we still send 2.2 million tons of compostable material to landfills every year. At less than 1% of that total, in terms of processing capacity, Patriot Acres’ work can be viewed as a small but vital step in the right direction.

Applying Science

The proponents and opponents of the compost site both claimed “science” to be on their side. Clarification is once again needed. The “science” required for responsible resource management is one that is both academic and hands-on. A purely textbook or laboratory understanding of the natural sciences is not a stand-in for ecosystem familiarity. I am reminded of the Krishnamurthi quote, “To come in contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it, and the word will not help you touch it.”

Opponents of the compost site cited chemical compounds, and their associated properties, to discredit the project on scientific grounds. Methane (CH4) is explosive, as is almost any gas at the right temperature and pressure. And Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) is poisonous at high enough concentrations. While both of these compounds can show up during the composting process, neither explosions or poisonous gas plumes happen during composting (though odors do happen, and we’ll get to that).

The point is that science for the sake of science does not equal progress. For the food, energy, ecosystem and resource management infrastructure of the future, we need individuals with an intuitive understanding of the biology and chemistry that surrounds them. Otherwise, we will end up in a war of scientific–sounding factoids that could be used to support any and all conclusions. The rising Eco-Literacy movement creates “educational experiences that cultivate deeper relationships with the broader ecological community.” This is the kind of science that needs to be applied in our decisions about the local economy and environment.

Putting Odor in Context

A study of compost site odors in California found that odor complaints by nearby residents are less correlated with proximity than they are with local perceptions of composting. Residents who find a facility objectionable can and will find odors – even the nearby earthy ones typical of quality compost – to anchor their complaints. The term “odor” is open to interpretation and thus vulnerable to feelings and attitudes. To the Citizens vs Patriot Acres group, the project already does and will continue to “stink,” due to the perceived threat of property value decline and their bad experience with the special use permitting process.

This leads us to an important question about winners and losers in the transition to sustainability. Given the fact that human activity already demands resources at a rate that exceeds the planet’s ability to regenerate (atmospheric carbon build-up is just one of nine symptoms identified in a recent study), there is no doubt that the transition to sustainability will require less resource consumption. The big question is where this less comes from. In other words, given the need for sacrifices, who bears them?

On Wednesday, the rubber met the road as we considered the fact that a middle-income area would suddenly be home to a composting facility. One speaker, opposing Patriot Acres, claimed that even in the best-case scenario, just the presence of the compost site will drive people off the local forest preserve trails. Putting this in different terms, you could say that the cost of the compost facility is simply the cost of adjusting to the presence of a compost facility and its associated odors, however persistent. It is certain that this cost does not measure up to the long-term cost – measured in climate change and lost economic opportunity - of not building compost infrastructure. In thinking of the problem this way, local leaders could decide on a way of properly compensating citizens who live near the composting, energy-generating, and localized industries of the future.

The globally privileged, which includes every American, but especially most Cook County communities, must recognize that doing our part might stink a little. As a region we must decide that moving toward local, productive management of materials and, especially soil nutrients, is worth a shift in our perceptions of costs and benefits.

Building Racial and Intergenerational Bridges

The very first speaker at the committee meeting sounded an important observation. He said something like, “I see most everyone that’s come to speak is white,” and went on to advocate for ensuring all the County’s demographic groups are heard. Des Plaines and Mount Prospect – Patriot Acres’ proximate cities – are both around 75% white. Environmental organizations and advocacy projects often suffer from poor racial diversity (though many of Chicago’s sustainability heavy-lifters, such as Growing Power, LVEJO and SETF, are Latino and Black-led organizations). With most public commenters being of Des Plaines and Mount Prospect and/or environmental advocates like myself, the crowd’s racial makeup wasn’t a surprise. I couldn’t help but notice another demographic trend, a clear generational and cultural difference in the opposing and proponent groups. The opponents of the compost project were generally older and cited property values and a frustration with government process as top concerns. The proponent group, a bit younger, was more likely to cite ecological goals and the importance of an environmentally-sound future for Cook County.

Racial and intergenerational bridge-building are perhaps the most important challenges facing the sustainability transition. Mustering the political will to redefine waste, enact eco-literacy programs, and enable localized food production, let alone tackle global climate change, requires a massive coordination effort among citizens. The People’s Climate Movement, which organized a 300,000-person march in New York in 2014 and a 200,000-person march in Washington DC just a few weeks ago, was only able to do so because groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, NAACP and labor unions worked as co-organizers. Intergenerational tension is top of mind here in Illinois where pension obligations, mostly owed to an older generation, are a main contributor to state debt and budget issues.

While it is easy enough to pay lip-service to “diversity” when we imagine a better future, the friction will be felt in places like county board meetings where differing groups express their priorities. Without cooperative efforts like the People’s Climate Movement, we will not be adequately prepared for such moments.

Clarifying Government’s Role

The committee meeting concluded with a vote to approve Patriot Acres’ special use permit. In encouraging his colleagues to vote Yay, Commissioner Larry Suffredin pointed out that “our job here is to decide whether a compost facility may be able to operate at the site.” From there, he emphasized, the plans must still be approved by a host of agencies and reviewing engineers. These hoops and hurdles are in place precisely to protect the public from bad actors, especially regarding industrial activities. And committee meetings such as Wednesday’s are in place to ensure everyday folks get a seat at the table.

While government may operate by outdated rules, such as classifying compostable material as “waste” rather than resources, those rules can be changed given serious public action. The effort required to continually update such rules is worth the benefit of public good protection that government provides. It must be remembered that the protection of public goods, such as the atmosphere and soil resources, requires a strong mediator. I saw this mediator role at work as the Zoning & Buildings Committee received public testimony, asked questions, and added conditions to Patriot Acres’ permit in response to citizen concerns. In the end, the special use permit was approved, with conditions, and Patriot Acres’ plans will move on to further review.

Ultimately, my experience at the meeting and my interactions with the various groups present assured me that we can weather the inevitable friction that the sustainability transition will bring, but not without sacrifice on everyone’s part.

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John Mulrow is a regular contributor to On the New Economy.  He is the former executive director of Plant Chicago, a non-profit working to build circular economies in food production and energy generation. John is currently pursuing a PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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