It's Your Stuff
General Iron Industries is a recycler located along the Chicago River just north of the North Avenue Bridge on a 21-acre site. I don’t know the plant’s exact boundaries, but one of the semi-truck entrances is just east of the bridge. General Iron’s operations appear to stop just short of Cortland Avenue to the north, which means the operation runs for six or seven city blocks.
Standing on the street outside General Iron’s main work area is an amazing experience. Large trucks are lined up along Kingsbury waiting to unload their cargo. Much smaller trucks enter the yard on Clifton. A couple of men in orange safety vests direct the trucks in what is best described as a ballet. Small vehicles head back to the street from the yard while large ones position themselves in proximity to the cranes that will unload the trucks. It takes no more than five to ten minutes to unload a semi. There is no break in the motion. The crane operators and traffic “cops” put in a full day.
Those who live in the apartments and condos dotting the lakefront know the smaller trucks well. They are operated by entrepreneurial individuals who pick up scrap from the residential buildings. People leave stoves, refrigerators, bicycles, baby carriages, and other metal objects on loading docks and other designated areas in alley and gangways. The discards disappear daily. Each night, when residents take newspapers and Amazon packing boxes to the recycling bins, some may notice that the metal objects are gone, but most probably have no idea where the objects go. The destination is most likely General Iron.
As might be expected, General Iron is not popular with its residential neighbors. Take one look at the facility, and it is easy to understand why. This is a messy business. Local residents are worried that the facility is releasing dangerous particulates into the atmosphere. In technical terms, the concern is over the release of volatile organic compounds. I don’t have the technical capacity to assess whether those worries are justified. The company claims that its operation does not pose health risks to its neighbors. In 2018, it responded to an EPA Finding of Violation by installing a regenerative thermal oxidizer, which according to its outside legal counsel, “set an example for our industry and make General Iron one of the first metal shredding facilities in the country to utilize this highly effective technology to control VOC emissions.”
Any neighborhood concerns are largely moot given General Iron’s plans. Recognizing the changing nature of its neighborhood, General Iron decided to relocate its operations. The impetus was probably the Lincoln Yards $6 billion, mixed-use development about to break ground to the immediate north of General Iron’s current facility. General Iron is moving to a southeast side location that is part of the Calumet Region’s Green Industrial Economic Corridor. The new site includes 175 acres, which is about seven times larger than the current one. The new facilities will require an investment of $65 to $70 million, and will include a state-of-the-art European style shredder. When the transition is complete, the current site will be sold and presumably redeveloped as commercial and residential space.
While we should all be concerned with the environment, we should not be too quick to condemn General Iron’s activities just because they deal with waste product. After all, it is our waste that General Iron processes. In a 2018 Fact Sheet, General Iron notes that it processes 700,000 tons of recyclable scrap metal and related materials each year, “which is roughly the same amount as all garage collected in the City of Chicago each year.”
Once again, according to General Iron’s website, “Steel mills and foundries use their own processing techniques to transform our recycled material into new steel and metal products for various industries. Using recycled metal in the production of new steel requires 70 percent less energy and reduces greenhouse gases by more than 50 percent versus producing new steel using raw materials. The energy saved is enough to power 18 million households for a year.” The recycled metal is then used in the auto and aircraft industries, and construction trades, as well as for building roadways and bridges.
I am fascinated by the tangled mass of garbage, the flow of trucks, the pivoting cranes lifting and dropping cars and mounds of metal. As usual, it is possible to find beauty in mess and decay, as long as my bed is made daily and the dishwasher is regularly emptied.
Caravan of Semis
Rollling on Kingsbury
General Iron Industries
Orderly and Compact Chaos
Crumpled Cars Being Delivered
Unloading a Semi of Crumpled Cars in Minutes
The KIA is Not Long for This World
The Plant, With Misters Keeping the Particulate and Dust in Check
A Smiling Entrepreneur
Tossed Like a Toy