The Compost King

Ethan Tate

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Ken Dunn’s world is littered with half-eaten oranges, soggy muffins, and any conceivable item that society interacts with and then discards, including an iPad found on Cottage Grove. He walks with his eyes toward the ground, looking for any refuse to evacuate from the street, absent-mindedly shoveling up debris to kill some time. More frequently than not, some of the trash stays with him, sticking out of his pockets, in the truck, or on his shirt. Just like Pigpen, he’s fine with it.

Dunn’s wrinkled and dark face is a startling sight in Chicago: a sun-ripened man in a sea of pillow-skinned indoor-philes. He’s got an all-American scrappiness with hands the size of small Frisbees and wears clothes that could be described as having a strong “seventies vibe.” After a long day of handling waste, he could also be described as having a strong “homeless vibe.” His voice–a lush, articulate tenor–does not match its rugged container.

Under the guise of the now-38-year-old Resource Center, Dunn started the first recycling entity in the city, followed by far and away the city’s first composting operation, only later to add City Farm and Division and Clyborn in the footprint of the notorious Cabrini Green. Since its founding, Dunn’s company has staked a small but steady hold in the wonky Chicago recycling world, a sector that has been largely dominated by more corporate entities since Dunn started the field.

This all makes Dunn a modern Johnny Appleseed. He’s a garbage man, an entrepreneur, an urban developer, a farmer, and most importantly, an idealist. He could also be considered a genius–the kind of guy who gives TED talks and gets MacArthur Genius Grants. You read New York Times articles about people like him and they have a Twitter that people may even care about. The thing is, Dunn has no Twitter, and he wants none of that: “You detract from the effectiveness of history when you embrace a hero,” he tells me when asked about celebrity status. “I’m from the point of view of the anti-hero.” He admitted, however, that the Resource Center board recently voted to nudge his role in the PR direction, so do not be surprised if you see him on “Good Day Chicago.”

If he does make a television appearance, his passion is sure to be apparent. When quizzed about religion, he explains his belief system as a three-fold philosophy balancing intellectualism, ethical ideals, and respect of plants, animals, and soil. One mention of Chicago’s 35 square miles of vacant lots, and he’s off and running, spilling Foucault and Michael Pollan as he attempts to wrap his brain around the unwrappable chasm that is Chicago’s bureaucracy.

All of Dunn’s ideals were planted during his upbringing in a Mennonite Amish community in Partridge, Kansas. These moderate Mennonites embraced current farming techniques, but in their appearance and home life, used nothing invented past the 1800s. The town has eleven roads and at least a few of them were used to teach Dunn how to drive a dump truck “at about five.” The ethos generated by this upbringing urges a connection with nature and nurtures an obsession with social responsibility and resource management. Dunn felt out of place, however. “I left that community intellectually at twelve,” he told me one morning.

During the Vietnam War, Dunn listed himself as a “contentious” observer and through the Peace Corps, traveled to the depths of the Amazon and lived with a Brazilian tribe. This period of time proved formative, with Dunn trading farming techniques with the locals and helping to develop sustainable business practices for their lumber market. He returned to the states and enrolled at the University of Chicago, pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy.

The story of how Dunn went from the university to working with garbage goes like this: Dunn, an adjunct professor at the time, had become interested in entrepreneurship. Colleagues derided his aspirations to own a business; academia is comfortable enough, they said, and Dunn focused on professorial duties and the completion of his thesis–a Rousseauian exploration of man’s role in nature and the possibilities of sustainable living.

During an interview with Kevin Pierce, an architect and Dunn’s current COO of the Resource Center, I learned how the change finally happened. A stroll along the South Side picking up trash was all it took to convince Dunn to exit academia with an incomplete thesis and open a business. Outside his VW van, Dunn approached some homeless men and asked if they would be interested in helping him pick up trash. He would turn the bottles into the refill site and share the money he was paid with the men. They obliged. At the end of the day, when they asked “What’re we doin’ tomorrow boss,”  all the pieces came together. Pierce claims Dunn was struck with the idea of a recycling plant of his own, employing similar down-on-their-luckers, which he does to this day.

The first time I met Dunn I could hardly make out his face in whatever negligible light that exists at 5 am. I was researching compost legislation in Chicago and, as one would expect, all roads led to Dunn. He cleared a lunch from several days ago and a bag of tin cans off the seat of his tricked-out custom dump truck and began talking about the woes of industrial farming, most people’s alienation from their food, and his befuddlement over the widespread unwillingness of people to eat over-ripened produce.

Ken wakes up at this time every day and crawls into his composting truck, which one can see parked along 55th Street near his Hyde Park home. He claims the vehicle is too complex for someone else to be trained to operate it. It seems that for Dunn, however, driving this truck day after day represents the most visceral connection one can get to the modern, urban food system. While the opportunity exists for Dunn to move to a more managerial position, he will be hard-pressed to take on a desk job.

Left to his own devices, our anti-hero will schlep day old bagels and Rick Bayless’s premium remnants across the city.  On a given day, he picks up waste from a smattering of Chicago’s most elite restaurants and splits it between his two locations at 135th and 70th Streets, where it is added to steaming piles of compost.

Dunn almost hit it big. Between 2004 and 2005, Dunn was in the midst of a lucrative deal with the Chicagoland Whole Foods stores. He and his fleet would pick up all of their food waste, compost it, and then split the compost between packaging and selling it at the 36 area Whole Foods and using it to grow Whole Foods produce for the region. With Mayor Daley and his environmental adviser Sadhu Johnston at his side, Dunn spent $30,000 pushing zoning changes to allow for farms in residential areas and $250,000 to buy what was originally $1 million worth of scrap machinery, which he rebuilt himself.

I knew the story wasn’t going in a good direction once I saw three or four incomplete Cat vehicles rusting away at 70th Street. The city insisted on a monthly contract for the project and promised 100 acres of farm in Chicago, 100 acres in Pembroke, Illinois (an area, which Dunn recently discovered, is so sandy that it has dunes), and his 70th Street site–a full four acres–fully devoted to composting. With this deal, Dunn was about to be king of Chicago’s premium urban food recycling project: he would have the leverage to move forward on his goal of 20,000 acres of urban farms in Chicago, and he would be able to open a competitive market in compost production–something he has no problem with.

Two months before the start of the program, in September 2005, Johnston called Dunn and told him the deal was off. Instead, the land was going to the suspiciously well-cared-for Allied Waste to serve as a parking lot for their vehicles. Yes, a parking lot. It’s the kind of thing that sends less fully actualized people to go postal, but Dunn just accepted it, swore against any month-to-month contracts, and moved on. The brush with renowned fame gave him an opportunity to become one of the biggest critics of the Chicago “Blue Bag” program, proving integral to its demise in 2008.

Sitting in on a meeting with Dunn, Nick Peterson, City Farm’s operations manager, and Merrill Smith, Dunn’s newly-minted director of the famed Division and Clyborn farm, it became clear that Dunn’s ideals don’t always align with responsible business practices. When debating a restaurant that had been receiving seconds (edible but not particularly pretty produce), Smith tells Dunn she would rather see the food composted than provided without compensation. It brought me to consider how long Dunn might have been letting such things slide in the name of brotherhood and good-naturedness, allowing more “classical” business owners to perhaps take advantage of someone who would rather die than see a nice tomato go to waste.

The group at the meeting has a symbiotic relationship, however, with Dunn the spiritual and ethical leader, delivering pseudo-motivational pep talks while Smith, on the verge of eye roll, discusses the importance of an upcoming meeting with a prickly alderman for a desired new site. With this approach, Dunn battles being pushed toward the fringes in the business world.

Maybe it is his upbringing, or the folksiness of being a farmer by trade–for whatever reason, branding, market share, and “playing the game” don’t come easily for him. He could be described as the crayon of the business world: fun, diverse, and efficient, yet difficult to draw inside the lines with. At the 70th Street location, I counted 16 vehicles, the majority of which were not in use, and several times I heard of “this is something we’re getting around to” and asides such as, “we’re going to re-machine this turbine.” Dunn is a force, but just as bits of garbage get stuck in cracks and crevices, Dunn often gets stuck himself.

Dunn would really prefer to see sustainability become a primary issue for urbanites. “We have to examine the meanings of these changing circumstances and we need to work more for peace-making.” It’s a broad goal–we agreed humans have historically failed in this department–but he’s hopeful nonetheless. More particularly, before he dies, Dunn still hopes to fill 20,000 acres with organic farms, making Chicago the first self-sufficiently fed city. Death seems a reasonable deadline for someone who works as a sort of manager of decay, and I would imagine he thinks a human would make for fine compost.

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