Long-time West Side resident Sam Taylor talks about his time working at city incinerators

After three decades working at incinerator sites in Chicago, Sam Taylor now spends his time tending to 36 community gardens. (Photo: Darien Boyd)

After nearly 30 years of working operating machinery at incinerator sites for the City Of Chicago, Sam Taylor realized it was time to retire—for his health and peace of mind.

“The doctor said I’ve got to sit down, and that’s just what I’ve done: sat myself down,” the 63-year-old says.

The long-time Chicagoan went to school, married, and raised his kids on the West Side. He says he could see the smoke emerging from the chimneys of the Northwest Incinerator long before he did any work there. “All I knew was that they took garbage there and they burned it,” he says.

As a Streets and Sanitation employee from 1981 to 2011, Taylor worked primarily at the Southwest Incinerator site located at 34th and Lawndale, From time to time however he would be called up to work at the Northwest Incinerator, at Chicago and Kilbourn.

Read more: What Do We Know About the Northwest Incinerator?

“I went from sorter, to operator, to handling heavy equipment, machine holding, loading the garbage on the truck and taking it to the landfill,” he remembers. “I saw everything come through. I saw dead babies that people had put in the garbage. I found body parts, tons of guns. We found guns every day.”

Taylor recalls when hazardous waste would come into the sites, and admits he was often concerned for his safety.

Taylor also promotes healthy foods and works as a community organizer. (Photo: Darien Boyd)

“There were times when there would be toxic waste and they would have to shut the place down because people couldn’t breathe,” says Taylor. “They had to clear the building out. Sometimes this happened once a month.”

His wife was no big fan of his occupation—for that reason and more.

“I would come home from being around the incinerator, and my wife would say ‘stop right there,’” he says, laughing. “She had a place for me to put my shoes and your coat out there, because ‘you smell like the incinerator.’”

Though the Northwest Incinerator was originally welcomed to the area when it was built in 1971, public perception of the industrial site began to sour. At the same time, automation technology changed the workforce: people were no longer needed to sort the waste by hand. Taylor explains, “When they were doing the sorting they had like 20 people at each station... [but then] they cut down on the jobs, so maybe you got like five, two people in one station.”

Local activists worried about environmental issues formed a coalition called WASTE (the Westside Alliance for a Safe and Toxic-free Environment) and lobbied against the incinerator, which eventually closed in 1996.

“Nobody wants to lose a job. Everybody needs money. There were a few sad faces but, you know, some people got relocated, and those people they felt weren’t working out just got laid off,” Taylor says.

He stayed with Streets and Sanitation long enough to see the city implement the Blue Cart recycling program in 2007, a service that provides residents living in single-family, two-, three- or four-flat buildings with blue carts to place their recyclable trash. Taylor remains skeptical about whether this system is effective.

“My sense was that it wasn’t working,” Taylor says, “People put anything in those blue cans without even thinking about it.”

Taylor’s been retired for six years now, but he doesn’t sit idle. When he isn’t doing community organizing along with his wife, Angela, he is maintaining the couple’s 36 gardens on the city’s Northwest Side. The one he frequents the most features a greenhouse and a chicken coop in the back of their West Garfield Park home.

Reflecting on his post-retirement life, Taylor recognizes the irony of what his everyday activity has now become.

“I went from garbage to greenery,” he says with a laugh. “My focus now are these gardens and promoting healthy food.”