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Green Machine

The city's environmental commissioner evangelizes to public and private sectors on the energy savings and pollution reductions of sustainable architecture.


Sadhu Johnston may not seem a natural fit for Mayor Richard M. Daley's environmental commissioner. At age 28, Johnston left Cleveland and his group, the nonprofit Green Building Coalition, where he evangelized public and private sectors on the energy savings and pollution reductions of sustainable architecture. He then stepped into a City Hall maelstrom. At least 10 cabinet members have resigned or been fired in the last year, and 42 city employees face indictments in a federal probe into hiring and contracting abuses. Two years later, Johnston fights that haze to push his green agenda into the city's workings. Here he answers questions for Chicago Life's Mischa Gaus.

The city has announced it will acquire 20 percent of its power through renewable resources. Where is that power coming from?

Last year we were at about 10 percent. The hope is to have it come from wind.

When do you think you'll reach that 20 percent goal?

I'm not sure. We were planning on achieving that goal by buying credits. But the key for us is reducing demand. We save about $4 million on all the energy efficiency work we've done, whether it's LED traffic signals or lighting retrofits -- really simple stuff.

Regarding the city's response to big polluters: The city advised Kramer, the company responsible for releasing the most lead into Chicago's air, how to burnish their image with cosmetic changes.

A bill limiting the amount of mercury two coal power plants can release languishes in a city council committee. Insiders say the mayor could pass that bill if he chose to. Why haven't there been more aggressive pushes?

Air quality remains one of the major challenges for Chicago and most other big cities. Air quality is regional. We could work on [the] two coal plants here, but there are four that are bringing air pollution into the city. Diesel trucks and cars are the largest sources of air pollution in the city. Having strong public transportation, supporting car sharing, having bike infrastructure -- we have more bike racks than any other city in the country?[we're] really building an infrastructure to get people out of cars.

[Ald. Edward] Burke did introduce an ordinance on those two coal plants. We've been advised by the law department that we don't have a great likelihood of winning if we are challenged, and that's why it hasn't been pursued over the years. The city does not have authority to mandate that those plants have higher standards than plants outside the city. We're as frustrated about it as environmental activists.

The Kramer facility years ago was polluting a lot more. We got real complaints, went out there [and] issued tickets. Kramer, from our observations, has done a lot to improve their emissions. There's a lot more they can do, and we've been trying to find ways to get that to happen. I'm an environmentalist. I grew up across the street from an unlicensed, hazardous handling facility in Cleveland, Ohio. I know what it's like to be a neighbor.

We've been trying to work with the company on one hand and the community on the other to find a balance. Those are the challenges of greening an industrial city like Chicago. It's easy to do it in a city like San Francisco, but it's more of a challenge to do it in a city like this.

Has it been difficult to see policies failing, like Blue Bag recycling, which some say is maintained because it is run by companies that donate heavily to Daley-allied political groups?

Any system takes a while to change. We're doing phenomenal work in the city. Blue Bag has continued, and it has absolutely nothing to do with any political ties anyone has. It's continued because it's the most cost-effective way to get a fair amount of waste out of the waste stream.

The Blue Bag program has an 8 percent participation rate.

There's a lot more we can do to improve recycling in the city. About 13 percent of the waste stream is collected by the city. The remaining 87 percent is in high-rises, businesses and construction sites. We're doing a lot on the remaining part. We're requiring all construction sites to recycle 50 percent of their waste by next year.

We're looking at ways for the Blue Bag program to evolve. We remove about 200,000 tons of waste through the Blue Bag program. If you look at other city recycling programs, that's more than most remove per year.

How do you get to work every morning?

I bike. I try to bike year-round.

'Greening' big-box stores seems problematic. Retailers are given tax breaks, which mean smaller budgets for transit and other sustainable projects. They attract multinational corporations with little regard for sustainability in how they produce and sell goods. How is that moving toward sustainability?

We are requiring that any development the city is involved in meet green criteria. And that's more than virtually any city in the country. We're changing the construction models and operational models of these multinationals. That is a huge opportunity to change the paradigm of how these facilities operate. I think mom-and-pop stores are great. But these kinds of stores provide amenities to communities. It's about creating balance and high quality of life in the community.

Published: April 01, 2006
Issue: Spring 2006