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Environment/Sustainability Fri Jul 08 2011

Greening the City, One Rain Barrel at a Time

By Ramon Gonzalez

Red-Admiral-Butterfly-on-Purple-Coneflower.jpgChicago has a reputation of being one of the greenest cities in America, but just how green are its residents? Have the city's initiatives like the Green Alleys program, which incorporates permeable pavements in alley design and diverts rain water away from the sewer system, created more environmentally conscious citizenry? In June a resident of the Little Village neighborhood completed the 100th rebate of the year for the Sustainable Backyard Program. He or she will get cash back for installing either a rain barrel or compost bin, planting a tree or creating a native plant garden on their property.

In a city with millions of residents the 100th participant in a program like this doesn't seem like much of a milestone, but yet it is. The 100 participants in the Sustainable Backyard Program have surpassed the number of participants from last year. About half of the participants this year indicated the reason for installing a rain barrel, compost bin, native plant garden or planting a tree was the promise of getting cash back for doing so. The funds for the rebates come from a US Environmental Protection Agency's Pollution Prevention Program and a USDA Forest Service Grant.

During a phone conversation with Lyndon Valicenti, WRD Environmental project manager for Chicago Department of Environment, she informed me that the program had 5,000 rebates to give to residents last year. Eight hundred were handed out at workshops designed to educate Chicagoans on rain barrels and compost bins. "We had about a 7 percent return rate. So, we're working to get the message out to Chicagoans to participate," Valicenti said.

Perhaps some of those people who took rebate forms last year never bought the rain barrels and compost bins they had planned to. Some may have intended to mail in the rebate forms and receipts but never got around to doing so -- a phenomenon known as the shoebox effect. Maybe rain barrels and compost bins just weren't sexy enough to entice Chicagoans to be more sustainable. Whatever the reason for the low participation last year, the program was expanded this year to include native plants and trees in the hopes of increasing participation.

A panel of environmental economists was convened to determine the environmental and economic value of rain barrels, compost bins, trees and native plant gardens. According to Valicenti, their findings estimate the annual ecosystem services of 5,000 rebates (total) distributed to Chicago residents for trees, native plants, rain barrels and compost bins to be $644,000. Over the course of their lifetime they will yield over $4.7 million in ecosystem services by improving air quality, reducing water treatment needs, reducing building energy use (tree shading), sequestering carbon dioxide and reducing flood risk. If every household in Chicago were to compost their food scraps and landscape waste (20 percent of residential waste stream), the City would save an estimated $5 million annually in waste hauling costs.

Another change made to the program this year to make it more accessible was adding the rebate forms to the City's website. Residents no longer have to attend a workshop to pick up a rebate. Anyone interested can download the form and mail it in with their itemized receipt.

The downloadable rebates and inclusion of native plants and trees are attracting more participants than last year. Mary Lou Zelazny of Jefferson Park has been making environmentally conscious changes to her backyard since 1992. That year Mary Lou along with her husband, Kevin, built and installed two compost bins. Since then they have been slowly replacing their lawn with ground covers and some native plants. This year the couple applied for a rebate for a rain barrel after purchasing one. "We were interested in sustainable gardening, and the rebate program allowed us to reach this goal in an economically sufficient manner," Zelazny said.

If you are interested in making similar changes to your yard, the Sustainable Backyard Program can help you achieve those goals and save you money in the process. You can get up to $40 back for installing a ran barrel, $50 back for a compost bin, $60 back for planting native plants and $100 back for trees. Keep in mind that the program is in compliance with Chicago's Invasive Species Ordinance and will not provide rebates for certain trees.

In an effort to create local markets for these sustainable products, the program has partnered with independent garden centers and big box stores throughout Chicago to make sure residents across the city have access to these products. What is considered a "garden center" has been expanded to include Ace Hardware, Costco and Whole Foods stores in Chicago that carry rain barrels that are eligible for the rebate.

The program this year is targeting residents in the Avondale, Logan Square, Chicago Lawn and Hegewisch neighborhoods to install rain barrels and plant native plants and trees to reduce basement flood risk after rainstorms. The now optional workshop component of the program helps teach residents how to install these items and about their benefit to the city and neighborhoods by creating habitat for native wildlife and combating climate change by using less energy and reducing waste. There's a workshop scheduled for July 26th at the Chicago Center for Green Technology on Tuesday, July 26, from 6pm to 8pm. Another workshop is planned for the month of September, but hasn't been listed on the website yet.

Even though summer has arrived in Chicago, there's still time to participate in the program. Native plants and trees can be planted in early fall, when cooler temps and rain make it a good time to plant. Rain water harvesting can be done up until right before our first freeze and even winter composting is an option.

Rebate forms are available for download from the website. You'll also find the list of ineligible trees for the rebate, locations of participating garden centers, and scheduled workshops.


Ramon Gonzalez is an urban gardener, blogger, freelance writer and garden speaker in Chicago, IL. He's been writing about gardening as MrBrownThumb since 2005. He's been featured on radio, print, spoken at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, and has conducted workshops for the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Gina / July 9, 2011 9:45 AM

Ramon - I LOVE the idea of including the native plants! I wish we had stuff like this out in Forest Park. I do know several people who have installed rain barrels and compost bins as part of this program. I also noticed the promotion of the program was much better this year so hopefully the participation will be a lot higher. Nice article!

MrBrownThumb / July 11, 2011 7:58 PM

Hi Gina, Thanks for the feedback. I too am hoping participation ends up a lot higher this year. I guess we'll know by this fall when the deadline for submitting the rebates comes up.

Rachel / January 26, 2012 10:15 AM

Too bad this is only for the city. I live in the burbs and would love to participate. This year we are building a compost bin and rain barrel in our home garden. Excellent program tho.

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