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Waste Not
Chicago's Merchandise Mart composts, aims for LEED innovation credit.
Chicago's Merchandise Mart.
Steven Vance / Flickr

Always eager to back up its claim to the nickname “the city that works,” Chicago has stepped up efforts to retrofit its historic building stock. In addition to the public plan to retrofit 6.5 million square feet of office space, individuals are taking steps to reduce waste as well. Those efforts include pursuit of an innovation credit for composting in one of the largest LEED-EB certified buildings in the world.

Merchandise Mart was awarded silver LEED certification in 2007. That put it among the ranks of other high-profile greening projects like the Empire State Building and Willis Tower. With more than 4 million square feet of floor space, the mammoth art deco landmark was the largest commercial building in the world upon its completion in 1930. It even carried its own zip code until 2008.

Now to push its environmental evolution further, the Mart has embarked on a composting initiative to bolster its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) profile during the scheduled recertification process.

“They want to be a showcase for what’s possible,” said Kevin Dick of the Delta Institute, currently consulting Merchandise Mart Properties (MMPI), the building’s owner, on their efforts. “They’re doing everything to make that a relevant building again.”

The building’s management had previously set up composting for the annual NeoCon convention and has been recycling building materials for several years. They have also been recycling paper, glass, and plastic waste for far longer. But when asked what they thought about the recycling program, many tenants and employees were unaware it existed. “Once they heard about it,” said Mark Bettin, MMPI’s vice president of engineering, “most asked for even more bins.”

That process was similar for composting. As with any program in a building as large as Merchandise Mart, composting was rolled out slowly. At first their trial system was troublesome—vendors needed to buy their own bags and remove the waste too often. MMPI signed on another waste service provider, Collective Resource, and streamlined that process. After four years of troubleshooting and cautious expansion, fourteen vendors, mostly restaurants, now contribute food waste and other refuse for a total of up to two tons of compost each week.

Most vendors’ stalls are very small, so bins wind up in back-of-house. Each tenant wheels their barrel to a loading bay twice weekly for pickup. Operations managers are even devising a system of incentives to encourage composting and recycling among the building’s office tenants and showroom spaces. Large tenants will weigh their recycling and waste on a new scale installed in the building’s loading dock. Those with the highest percentage of recycled and composted waste by weight, the thinking goes, could be rewarded for their efforts. Google’s Motorola Mobility has joined the procession of new tenants at the Mart, following its reinvention as a hub for Chicago’s tech startups.

In ginning up support for the city’s failed 2016 Olympic bid, Mayor Richard M. Daley billed Chicago as “America’s Green City.” He was criticized for overstating the claim, but from the vantage point of city hall’s lush green roof, one could understand Daley’s optimism. Ongoing efforts by large landowners like MMPI could help drive the green market, its owners hope, by demonstrating even large and historic buildings can act nimbly to reduce waste.

Chris Bentley