Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant

Ken Dunn embodies an American ideal of intelligence, an extraordinary melding of farmer and philosopher. He just might be the smartest man in the city. And he grows magnificent tomatoes.

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If forced to select a favorite philosopher, Dunn chooses Plato, for reasons that quickly become clear. “Plato’s Republic is about how society could be arranged to accomplish the good, the true, and the beautiful,” says Dunn, a wiry, tall, chisel-handsome 61-year-old who looks about 47. Discussing the Republic is not all that unusual for Dunn: He has a thoughtful manner, and completed his coursework for a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago some years back (his dissertation on resources, labor, and discontent remains unfinished). But on this bright spring afternoon, here at the Resource Center’s three-acre South Side recycling yard on East 70th Street, Dunn is talking Plato while working the gears of his enormous truck, backing it deftly into position to pick up a load of compost. His take on Plato’s definition of harmony is almost drowned out by the thrum of the engine. Unusual.

The truck is a ten-wheel diesel Freightliner, a bone-rattling monster with a hydraulic lift on the back that can raise and lower enormous metal containers of compost, or newspaper, or whatever Dunn might need to move from place to place. The cab, cluttered with rags, tools, and papers, essentially serves as his office. His cell phone rarely stops ringing.

At one of the center’s South Side yards, local residents can donate materials or turn in aluminum cans for a voucher that can be redeemed at a neighborhood store.

Surrounded by trees, the compound is a shimmering landscape of mountains of aluminum and tin cans, cardboard, and green and white glass. Seagulls soar above the yard, their cries a background to the sounds of glass and metal being dumped and moved. The glass that comes in, hauled by some of the Resource Center’s fleet of 23 vehicles, is sorted and eventually sold to a glass factory, to be remade into bottles. The tin and steel are sold to a steel mill; the aluminum is sold to an aluminum mill. “Recycling is a very simple and straightforward thing,” Dunn says. “We can make all the things we use out of virgin material, extracting from the planet, or we can make everything from materials already in use.” Dunn rejects the critics of recycling who assert that it takes more energy to collect and reprocess materials than to create new ones-but he believes that recycling, like many things, needs to be practiced more efficiently.

This South Side yard is one of the Resource Center’s two main locations, and here local residents can donate materials or turn in aluminum cans for a voucher that can be redeemed at a neighborhood store. At this location and at the headquarters yard at East 135th Place, the Resource Center processes about 500 tons of material every week-a tiny fraction of the material the city discards and, for the most part, sends to landfills.

Recycling is just one of the Resource Center’s activities. The organization’s seven units have different functions, but they are all engaged in the pursuit of Dunn’s sustainable society. A mobile recycling program serves all the Chicago Housing Authority sites in the city, buying materials from residents and transporting them to the proper recycling facilities. Another unit moves perishable items such as goods in slightly dented cans and day-old bread to food programs that can use them.

The Blackstone Bicycle Works program, at 6100 South Blackstone Avenue, repairs bikes of all shapes and sizes and sells them on the cheap; besides using its profits for social programs, the repair shop also teaches youths in the neighborhood how to fix and customize their bicycles. (An April 2001 fire at the facility forced the program to operate out of on-site trailers, but construction on a new facility has begun.) And the Creative Reuse Warehouse, a combination retail store and repository of “overruns, rejects, and byproducts that business and industry treat as ‘waste,’” according to the Resource Center Web site, has become a favorite stop among artists and schoolteachers, who can acquire paper and crafts materials for a fraction of their retail cost. Donors can get a tax deduction. (The warehouse was forced to relocate because of expansion by the University of Illinois at Chicago and currently operates out of the Resource Center headquarters.)

These various operations employ 28 people full time, supplemented by a volunteer crew of close to 100. The full-timers, many of whom have been with the center for more than two decades, receive health insurance and a living wage. The total budget for the Resource Center is $2 million to $3 million annually, a sum that is raised from grants, donations, and revenue. “Even though I am the chief officer, I’m somewhat in the middle of it in terms of salaries,” Dunn says, before leaping up several feet and pulling himself to the edge of the tall container, now filled with compost, on the back of his truck. “I can get the pleasure of seeing everything and having some fun experiments, but don’t get the most money.”

 

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