We as a culture produce a lot of trash—and not just in the form of reality television shows, late night infomercials and bad romance novels. Whether it’s the candy wrappers we toss into the trash bins outside on the sidewalk, the newspapers we take downstairs to the recycle bin, or half-eaten food we throw down the convector chute, we dispose of tons of trash annually. But where does it go from there? Put another way: how does Chicago take out its trash?
If you were marooned on an island, and you needed a system for throwing away whatever trash you accumulated, you would probably wind up finding a hole, throwing the refuse in, and subsequently, burying it. This is what Illinois—and every other state, for that matter—did for hundreds of years: they found big holes in the ground and tossed trash in them. Stearns Quarry, once a gaping hole in the ground in Bridgeport, was one such place.
Over time, two problems developed because of extensive landfill use. First, Chicago is a densely-populated city, where real estate is particularly valuable; as landfills began to reach peak capacity, it was not feasible to build new ones in the city limits. That’s the space problem.
The other issue is environmental. If your refuse is organic material like coffee grounds, banana peels and an old pair of ripped socks, you can fill up a hole in the ground with a free conscience. But when you start tossing in lead paint, crumbling asbestos tiles and toxic chemicals, you run into serious problems.
Chicago’s solution then was to incinerate its trash. The Northwest Incinerator on North Kildare and Chicago Avenue was opened in 1971. The idea was to reduce waste—ash takes up ten percent of the landfill space solid waste would—and generate energy in one fell swoop. For awhile, the Northwest Incinerator was a smashing success. It reduced the waste by 90 percent—dumping it at Stearns Quarry—and generated enough excess power to sell it to the Brachs Candy factory. But this came with a cost. The Northwest Incinerator pumped “lead and other pollutants emitted from its double stacks onto nearby neighborhoods, which were, for the most part, poor black communities,” reports activist Laurie Palmer in AREA Chicago. “In 1993, after over 20 years of operation, it was spitting out somewhere between 5 and 17 pounds of lead per hour from its stacks.”