Cleaning Day on Recycling Road

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It’s a great Saturday morning before Mothers Day. The weather’s been awful for spring and in housing, cabin fever can run rabid. Let’s go outside, shed our winter-thickened skin and maybe get some cleaning done. This is the time of the year when a neighborhood puts on the shine.

Certainly that’s what Lathrop residents thought as we came together for cleaning and greening our area on this year’s Clean-Up Day. With all this cleaning, one has to consider there will be trash and there will be recycling. Well, it couldn’t be a better day for the recycling program – known as the Buy Back initiative – held every Saturday at Lathrop. And what would be a greater jewel in this crown but to have Bill Abolt, assistant commissioner of the City of Chicago Department of Environment, come to Lathrop on such a busy-body of a day. Bill rode his bike over to Lathrop with his young daughter in her harness and had the chance to walk the very grounds that birthed the Buy-Back Recycling Program that’s being implemented throughout public housing neighborhoods.

Bill said he was glad to see all the “community involvement.” So while walking, we were talking on how the Buy-Back Program got its humble start right in Lathrop.

With the implementation of the Blue Bag Recycling program, the City of Chicago came to the landlords of public housing and instructed them that they too must recycle. So with a study financed by the State of Illinois, CHA took a resident survey study from the Lathrop site. Through the help of Ellen Gantz, a previous director of the Lathrop Homes Boys and Girl Club, Waste Management, the Blue Bag program’s contractor, and the Resource Center, the Department of Environment took this survey information and tried to spread the word among our residents to start recycling.

Lathrop Homes residents Bobby Watkinds, Margaret Kessler (far right) and an unidentified resident paint a rock as part of Lathrop's Clean and Green Day. Photo by Earl Battles.

This did not take very well with our residents nor did it help Lathrop clean away the garbage that overflowed from the dumpsters and littered the mid-courts at the center of the development. Residents didn’t want to chance keeping items for recycling for the fear of pests, already bad, becoming worse. Furthermore, residents couldn’t see themselves separating trash for recycling when they know the city paid sorting centers for sifting through garbage.

This was not a good start of the city’s Blue Bag idea among housing residents. Without recycling, CHA would be paying through the nose to private collectors of trash. Of course, we all know where the bill would be forwarded.

This presented an opportunity to Bill Abolt, who had just got his city position in April 1993. With the help of the National Resource Division of the Open Land Project and the information those surveys provided, the Department of Environment, Waste Management and the Resource Center began a dialogue with Lathrop’s Resident Management Corporation (RMC) and the Local Advisory Council (LAC). Thus began the Lathrop Homes Resident Double Buy-Back Recycling Program.

About a half-hour into our discussion of the program’s start, resident Bobby Watkins wandered into our walking path and I introduced him to Bill.

Bobbie told Bill that he helped organize this year’s Clean and Green Day along with the LAC (thanks to Ethel Hodges) and Vanessa Dorsey, manager of Lathrop. After exchanging pleasantries, Bobby promised to keep in touch and went on to prove the clean-up was working by grabbing a broom.

Bill, his daughter and I kept walking and continued with our talk. He noticed that Lathrop has profited greatly from the landscaping, numerous tree planting and the grassing of our open areas through the Open Land Project. But Lathrop always had a large tree-scape. And being located on the north branch of the Chicago River, you’ll find yourself admiring how green it is around the development.

Bill explained that the Double Buy-Back Program is not just the first of its programs but that Lathrop was particularly chosen to kick-start the program. That’s great considering the whole idea of the program is to pay residents full market value of the recyclable materials and to match that payment with funds to train and hire residents to eventually run the business of recycling at the site.

The Resource Center's Kathleen McGhee explains the Double Buy-Back program to a number of young Lathrop Homes recyclers. Photo by Earl Battles.

Lathrop residents bought into the Buy Back program because of the promise of training money. Well, to use the good but overused phrase from the film “Jerry McGuire,” RMC officials Titus Kirby, Grace Moss and LAC President Juanita Stevenson are hollering, “Show me the money.” They say that Waste Management and the Resource Center aren’t holding to their end of the agreement for using Lathrop to make the program a success.

Bill said the money from the program goes into buying the trucks and paying the wages of VISTA workers who graduate into permanent employees.

But regardless of the controversy, Bill admired again how residents are coming out to support the neighborhood Clean and Green Day. He noticed the yard raking, the trash recycling and our young people painting large boulders that are part of our landscape.

The children are having fun doing the work and getting snacks of hot dogs, chips and cans of soft drinks for their efforts. Thanks to all who donated when our community specialist came calling.

Bill expressed his hope that the residents’ enthusiasm will go into filling the recycling truck so that it could make multiple runs instead of coming just once a week. That could create more positions for residents.

Working with what they have, a few residents have been hired on the truck and a couple of residents have graduated to become VISTA workers.

The Department of Environment has started placing recycling programs in many CHA developments. But Bill said the Department of Environment and CHA are working to identify and eliminate “institutional problems” so that the program will work throughout CHA.

Perhaps if we put this program in the hands of resident-owned businesses, maybe those “institutional problems” will fade. The idea has Ron Carter, CHA’s director of Economic Development, working with Bill Abolt on the expansion. Carter operates the Resident Employment Development Initiative, which helps residents create their own businesses. Could this be the end of those “institutional obstacles?”

Meanwhile, Lathrop continues cleaning, greening, gleaming and recycling. I can look around and see the land profiting. Now it’s overdue for the residents to profit and not just by the tonnage of a truck that needs to be filled.

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