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Sustainability Summit expands its roots

Stephanie Strauss

Deborah Stone, chief sustainability officer and director of the Department of Environmental Control addresses the audience during her panel, From Waste to Resource: Finding the Treasure in Trash

On Wednesday, July 2, we (Metropolitan Planning Council Research Assistants Stephanie Strauss and Bana Zayyad) took a bus over to the Allerton Hotel off of Michigan Avenue for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s (MWRD) second annual Sustainability Summit to learn about initiatives going on around the region related to sustainability.

For years, MWRD has invested its energy in sustainability efforts. Recently, MWRD’s biosolids program has grown after a recent bill passed which allows MWRD to market its nutrient-rich biosolids. In the past, MWRD was required to distribute biosolids free of charge. In addition to making fertilizer, these processing plants also produce energy—warmth from effluent is recycled to generate energy for the Kirie processing plant.

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) works closely with MWRD on a range of issues, including partnering with them on the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative and supporting their policies and initiatives. MPC is doing research on a local and national scale to develop recommendations on how best to incentivize stormwater mitigation on private properties.

Biosolids provide enrichment for plants.

Stephanie Strauss

From biosolids to greenhouse gas emissions to funding, we heard it all. After welcoming remarks and a small discussion on MWRD’s recent initiatives, we jumped right into the main program. We were led through the present status of Cook County’s greenhouse gas reduction plan—for the record, we’re ahead of schedule, on average reducing more than 2 percent of greenhouse gases each year. After a rundown of MWRD’s biosolids program, we got to take home some petunias grown with biosolid nourishment. Through the program, the District takes the waste from sanitary processing plants and converts it into a nutrient-rich soil. 

The summit wrapped up with a debrief on the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Initiative funding opportunities and a summary of all the sustainable elements implemented in the Governor’s mansion—bet you didn’t know there’s a chicken coop and vegetable garden at the mansion that provide eggs and hash browns for breakfast! While exploring the topic of stormwater infrastructure, we learned that green (literally green, as in plants) stormwater infrastructure may possibly be the best way to go—some case studies showed over 99 percent runoff reduction.

We each enjoyed different sections of the summit. Below, our synopses:

Stephanie Strauss on Stormwater and Streetscapes: The Role of Green Infrastructure in Stormwater Management

When you hear the phrase “green infrastructure,” your snap judgment might bring to mind human-made interventions like rain barrels, permeable pavers or rain gardens. Bob Newport, stormwater specialist at U.S. EPA Region 5 (made up of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 tribes), offered up a simpler aspect of the story. While he acknowledged constructed approaches to stormwater mitigation can be effective, he shed light on the “green” in green infrastructure.

Native plants play a starring role in the green infrastructure narrative. The advantages of native plants, such as prairie plants, are multifold, since they’re generally heartier and more resilient. The primary goal of green infrastructure, be it human-made or naturally occurring, is to soak up rain where it falls and reduce the amount of water running into sewers. Deeper roots provide for efficient stormwater absorption, especially in comparison to the shallow root system of an average lawn. Corporate campuses that have adopted native landscaping instead of a vast lawn have reported the economic benefit of lower mowing costs in addition to aesthetic improvements. Beyond thwarting stormwater, native plants can combat erosion along lakeshores and riverside areas due to the stability of deeper roots. Newport’s presentation was an excellent reminder to look toward nature as a model for stormwater mitigation.

Demonstrating the importance of an active role in stormwater management, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) works to help local communities mitigate their stormwater runoff by exploring alternative strategies to invest in alongside grey infrastructure. At last year’s Sustainability Summit, MPC received an award recognizing the stormwater management work with the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Additionally, MPC helped lead the Blue Island, Blue Water initiative in the south suburb of Blue Island by working with local residents and businesses to install rain barrels and native gardens. MWRD has had a long-standing program for purchasing discounted rain barrels in Cook County communities, but will soon be offering a new low-cost program to help echo the efforts of stormwater mitigation.   

Bana Zayyad on From Waste to Resource: Finding the Treasure in Trash

When I walked into the Sustainability Summit, I could imagine a discussion on sustainable construction…but sustainable demolition? That concept piqued my interest. Deborah Stone, chief sustainability officer and director of the Department of Environmental Control of Cook County, walked us through one of the County’s newest construction ordinances—the Cook County Demolition Debris Diversion ordinance. Typically, construction and demolition waste occupies 25 percent of landfills. The Ordinance was born from an urgency to turn that 25 percent of trash into treasure.

When a structure is demolished, material is rarely salvageable. The Ordinance requires contractors to deconstruct buildings in pieces rather than tear them down wholesale. Deconstruction entails systematically dismantling the structure in a responsible manner so that resources can be recovered, recycled and reused—essentially diverting waste from landfills and back to the market. Stone said the County hopes the 70 percent recycling and 5 percent reuse requirements will bring it closer to attaining its 0 percent waste goal.

The Sustainability Summit was a celebration of the community leaders who spread awareness of environmental issues and demonstrate how small measures can add up to greater impacts. By honoring the efforts of local green-participants, MWRD encourages forward thinking and growth in an environment worth sustaining.


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