As a chilly wind blows in from the east, Souma Phosaraj fires a salvo in the war against waste, filth, and urban decay. He weighs a bag of green beer bottles.
"That's two cents a pound," he tells a slumped-shouldered old man in a worn corduroy coat. "You've got 20 pounds here, that's 40 cents. With the aluminum, that's $2.50."
The old man blows on the fingers of his left hand, feeling the cold, and counts the change as Phosaraj plops it into his outstretched right.
"This is only one little center in a large city," says Dale Alekel-Carlson, observing the scene. "But it helps. What we have to do is repeat this all over Chicago."
Alekel-Carlson is executive director and Phosaraj the yard foreman of the Uptown Recycling Station--nothing more than a parking lot with six large bins at 4716 N. Sheridan Road.
Scrap scavengers come to them with aluminum, glass, newspapers, tin, and assorted other metals and paper. Phosaraj and his assistant, Tia Phothisene, pay them for the scrap. And then it is hauled away to be recycled.
They must be doing something right, for the place bustles with the business of scrap peddlers (or "alley entrepreneurs," as Alekel-Carlson calls them). Phosaraj, a Laotian refugee, literally runs back and forth to keep up with the scavengers.
"In the summer," he says almost out of breath, "it's even busier. We have people waiting in line."
In the past year, the Uptown Recycling Station collected 850 tons of refuse: 125 tons of aluminum cans, 385 tons of glass, 285 tons of newspaper, 10 tons of scrap metal, 25 tons of cardboard, 10 tons of steel cans and aluminum foil.
On top of that, the recyclers operate a curbside collection service; their battered Volkswagen van travels through parts of Rogers Park and Lakeview collecting bundles of newspapers, bottles, and cans.
And still that's not enough. Their valiant efforts reduce Chicago's disposal needs by about a drop.
About 31,500 tons of solid waste is generated each day in the Chicago area, according to a recent story in the Tribune--and the total is steadily rising.
But the city--like the country as a whole--is quickly running out of space to dump the garbage.
As it now stands, Chicago buries most of its solid waste in a handful of dumps on the southeast side. They are filling up, however, and there are no towns or cities in the area clamoring to accept the overload.
Indeed, most communities want out of the landfill business altogether. The number of landfills in the metropolitan area has fallen from about 35 to 23 in the last decade.
That leaves city officials with little choice. They cannot incinerate all the garbage without polluting the environment, so they must recycle, which means the harried Uptown Recycling Station may represent the future of garbage disposal for the city of Chicago.
"Recycling is a major agenda item for the city," says Kirsten Svare, public information officer for the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation. "The mayor has made a public commitment to get at least 25 percent of the waste stream recycled by the end of the 20th century."
"I think we can reach 25 percent by the next century," adds Alekel-Carlson. "But it will take a lot of work. We have psychological barriers to recycling. Just separating bottles and newspapers from the rest of the refuse is a major shift for some people."
The start, Alekel-Carlson believes, is education. "The Sun-Times just wrote a story in which an official said we may run out of landfill space by 1991, and the city may have mandatory trash recycling as a result. News articles like that are important because they get the word out. Better we should have headlines now warning of the danger than a headline in 1991 that says: 'No more landfill space.'"
The Tribune, Alekel-Carlson is told, also ran a recent article on the dwindling supply of landfill. "That's good," she says, adding, with an ironic smile, that the Tribune, unlike the Sun-Times, is not printed on recycled paper.
"There's a hierarchy to waste management," Alekel-Carlson continues. "The simplest form of handling waste is, quite simply, to reduce the amount we generate. The second best way is to reuse things. If you have an empty bottle, for instance, don't throw it away. Put it to use. Fill it with water to spray the plants or something.
"Third, we should recycle. Fourth, we should incinerate what we can't recycle. Incineration provides energy and takes up less space. And, finally, the least preferred way of handling waste is landfill. Unfortunately, the reality is we landfill about 80 percent of Chicago's waste. We need to reverse that. That's the goal, that's our challenge."
Most residents would make good use of a recycling station, even if they don't realize it now, says Alekel-Carlson.
A demand for such a station grew in Uptown in the early 1980s, as more and more Asian refugees moved there. It became clear that many of the new immigrants eked out a living, or supplemented their income, by rummaging through streets and alleys for returnable cans and newspapers. In time, word of the scavengers reached the Hyde Park-based Resource Center, the city's most prominent and active recycling center.
"The Southeast Asian community organizations here, as well as priests from Saint Thomas of Canterbury Church, approached the Resource Center," says Alekel-Carlson. "They described how residents had to walk miles to find a recycling center, and they wanted to know whether one could be built in Uptown. There are a lot of alley entrepreneurs in this community.
"Our first station was in a parking lot of the church. That was in 1983. We had one van. When the van was filled, we drove it to Hyde Park's Resource Center."
As interest spread, the Recycling Station moved to a lot behind a gas station. It set up in its current site in 1986. It now employs four full-time staffers and is open 8 AM to 4 PM every day except Wednesdays and Sundays.
"The Resource Center always wanted to spin us off with our own independent board of directors," says Alekel-Carlson. "They put together an advisory committee of Uptown residents. We got a grant from the Field Foundation for $10,000. We secured a loan from a bank and bought this parking lot.
"Our ultimate goal is to become self-sufficient. To get there, we need to really get the word out, and draw more users.
"We did a survey last year and found that about 26 percent of the people we interviewed said that the money they make returning bottles and newspapers is their only source of income."
As she talks, a slight man in a corduroy coat and disheveled sandy hair walks up to her.
"What do you say, honey, wanna buy a calculator?" he asks.
"No, thank you," Alekel-Carlson replies.
"Come on, honey, it's good. I'll sell it to you for a dollar. It works, look, see. I bought it wholesale for $2, and now I'm broke so I gotta get rid of it."
Again, Alekel-Carlson politely refuses, so the man walks away, finding a more interested customer in Phosaraj.
"Come on, fella," he says, "I'll sell it to ya for 50 cents. Fifty cents it's a steal."
Their voices fall to a murmur. There's a pause. Then they shake hands, and the sandy-haired man walks away beaming.
"It's not the price I wanted," he chortles. "But, remember: half a loaf of somethin' is better than half a loaf of nothin'."
Alekel-Carlson laughs. Some people, she notes, may worry about using the recycling station because of its Uptown location.
"That's too bad if that happens because we've never had any problems," Alekel-Carlson says. "The people are generally very nice and cooperative. They're poor, by and large, Hispanic, black, Appalachian white, a lot of Asians--everybody.
"I've been here when there are long lines. And if an older lady comes, the people in line will let her up to the front, even if it means they will have to wait longer in the cold or rain."
The recycling station pays by the pound: currently 38 cents for a pound of aluminum cans, $1.25 for 100 pounds of newspapers, and two cents a pound for glass containers.
"The amount we pay varies according to how much the people who recycle it want," says Phosaraj. "Aluminum is down this week from 40 cents last week. But it's up from the summer."
"I collect these cans all weekend," says an East Indian man in broken English; he's come in pushing a rusty shopping cart laden with three huge plastic bags filled with aluminum cans. "This is 50 pounds. That's $19. I could do better elsewhere. But this is best 'cause it's close to where I live."
Alekel-Carlson and Phosaraj are skeptical about his claim that recycling centers elsewhere offer better money. They doubt anyone can match their price.
"Aluminum is the most popular item because it brings the most money," says Alekel-Carlson. "We need a ten-cent markup per pound to meet our expenses. If the can companies are paying us 48 cents, they're paying everyone the same thing. I don't see how another recycling center can pay people more and still make up their money."
The station's other major effort is its alley service collection program. At least once a week, the van, driven by Steven Weiss, collects bundles left by residents who live between Devon, Clark, Rogers, and Sheridan in Rogers Park and between Belmont, Ashland, Addison, and Racine in Lakeview. (For information about the program, call Alekel-Carlson at 769-4488.)
That program has been bolstered in part by a contract from the city's Department of Economic Development, says Alekel-Carlson. "The department agreed to compensate us $10 for every ton of newspapers and bottles we divert from a landfill. It's called the Diversion Credit Rebate."
But the contract expired in September, and Economic Development decided not to renew it, maintaining that such a program should be funded by Streets and Sanitation.
Svare says the city is reviewing the Recycling Station's proposal for another grant.
"The Purchasing Department is doing the paperwork on the proposal, so we can't say when an announcement will be made," says Svare. "I can't say if Uptown is going to get a grant, but they are one of the best-run programs in the city."
"I hope the city comes through with the money, because we have plans to expand," says Alekel-Carlson. "We want to double our tonnage over last year's. We have all sorts of ideas. We'd like to persuade bar owners to separate their glass and have it packed to be picked up by the alley entrepreneurs. That can work to the advantage of the bar owners, you know. Because right now they have to pay a private service to haul their garbage away.
"We want to get newspaper service in the high rises, and we want to get the word out so that more people leave packages for our van. The important thing is that people realize how important recycling is to their future. We're not just talking about a few recycling hippies in the 1960s."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.