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From Garbage to Greenery

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.”

What Do We Know About the Northwest Incinerator, a Large, Mostly Empty Industrial Site on the West…

Join City Bureau reporters as we explore ideas of development, activism and safeguarding community knowledge. We’ll start with what we’ve learned so far

The chimneys are all that remain of the former Northwest Incinerator at 740 N. Kilbourn. (Photo: Martha Bayne)

Our team of four City Bureau reporters — Martha Bayne, LaCreshia Birts, Darien Boyd, and Amber Colon Nunez — is focusing this spring on the site of the former Northwest Incinerator and the neighborhoods surrounding it.

We are intrigued that, despite the great deal of attention focused on the incinerator while it was active between 1971 and 1996, and its proximity to residential neighborhoods, community knowledge about this industrial site on the border of West Humboldt Park and Austin is so fractured. What it was once, what it is now, and what it could be in the future is, to many we spoke with, a source of mystery, confusion, or simply ancient history.

This spring we’re meeting with local groups and other stakeholders to explore not just the site itself, but what it means to shape future development, who gets that access, and how it might be expanded. To start off we’ll share five things we’ve learned so far.

1. The incinerator was a big deal at the time.

Opened in 1971 at 740 N. Kilbourn, the Chicago Northwest Waste-to-Energy Facility, aka the Northwest Incinerator, only operated for 25 years, but was, for a time, the largest incinerator in North America, capable of burning 400,000 tons of garbage a year. It was shut down in 1996, thanks to both pressure from local environmental activists, who responded in force after the incinerator failed Environmental Protection Agency testing in 1993, and the repeal that year of the controversial Retail Rate Law, which had provided a financial incentive to private incinerator operators. With that incentive gone, the cost of upgrading the incinerator to meet Clean Air Act standards proved prohibitive, and the facility was closed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

2. People lauded how environmentally friendly it would be.

When it opened, during the long tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley, incineration of solid waste was believed to be an environmentally sound alternative to landfills, and the pollution-mitigating technology of the facility was state of the art for the time. But according to witness reports, the smoke from its chimneys often smelled extremely foul. Says Marie Henderson, longtime owner of Out of the Past Records at 4407 W. Madison, “I didn’t notice when it shut down, I just noticed that the air got better.” According to DePaul soil scientist James Montgomery, who visited the site in 1993, a visible layer of soot coated the ground and windows around the incinerator.

3. Lead contamination levels are extremely high in the neighborhood.

A study by the Center For Neighborhood Technology reports that in 1994 the facility’s smokestacks emitted 17 pounds of lead per hour, and a health screening in Austin at the time found that 1,638 children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. We are still seeking information about lead levels in the soil around the incinerator site, but soil testing in the neighborhood the early ’90s showed levels of lead high above EPA standards of contamination. Whether the lead came from the incinerator or from, say, lead paint chipping off nearby houses, is not known. We do know that lead levels in water fountains at nearby Orr Academy High School tested at 16 percent above EPA action levels last year; water at some area parks has tested as high as 100 percent above action levels.

4. The future of the site is in limbo.

Activists’ hopes for the creation of a comprehensive recycling or composting facility on the site never came to fruition, though for a time the site was used as a sorting facility for the short-lived Blue Bag recycling program. Today the site is owned by the city, and used as a waste transfer station contracted to Marina Cartage. As recently as 2016 proposals were reportedly circulating among West Side business owners for possible mixed-use redevelopment at the site; the status of those plans is to date unknown.


5. It’s sort of become a landmark.

The incinerator building itself was demolished in 2015 (see above video), but its towering twin 250-foot chimneys remain a striking local landmark. Said one area business owner we spoke with, “Those chimneys just say ‘West Side’.”

Intrigued? Get in touch.

What else should we know about the incinerator site? What would you like to know about it?

Share your memories of the Northwest Incinerator, and tell us what questions you want answered about its past, present and future: Text the word NORTHWEST to 312–697–1791. Or, you can leave a comment here or email us at