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Above: The Land and Lakes Riverbend Prairie landfill is on the shore of the Little Calumet River. There is both recreational and industrial traffic on the river. Right: Visitors on the tour went to the Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve, on the far South Side of Chicago. Photos: Aaron Rosinski

Cheer up. Spending an afternoon being down in the dumps isn't nearly as bad as you might think. After all, with trash galore, sewers, and waste streams to visit, how could you feel low?

One of Chicago's newest excursions— the “Down in the Dumps” tour, conducted by the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF)—takes people to “dumpy” sites in the Chicago area. Participants learn where the city's 10,000 tons of waste per day goes after it's discarded.

The tour, part of a broad-based partnership among organizations and agencies performing environmental work in the Chicago area, was originally scheduled as a one-time event. Given the overwhelming response, however—the first tour attracted 90 people, and many more from across Illinois and parts of Indiana have expressed interest—SETF plans to hold tours every few months.

College-aged students and young adults especially have shown interested in Down in the Dumps. “It's really great to see because we normally have a lot of the elderly residents who take our historical tours, but we never had this type of interest,” said Aaron Rosinski, SETF's executive director.

The tour features 14 sites, including closed landfills, the city's last active landfill, and the Water Reclamation District of Chicago. It costs about $350 to run one tour, including staff time and the rental of a school bus.

When people see the tour, “their reactions are in terms of finally seeing the light,” said Rosinski. He said they recognize that each citizen has a personal impact on the environment, since waste from flushing the toilet or throwing a trash bag into a Dumpster has to go somewhere. “They really are curious about how these things operate and what specifically is done to minimize pollution and minimize impact on the environment,” said Rosinski. “They want to see what happens to the garbage that they are responsible for.”

SETF hopes that people will become more conscientious and active about their personal habits in terms of how they minimize consumption of packaging or household hazardous waste products like pesticides. In 2003, 3.8 million tons of solid waste was disposed of in northeastern Illinois. The state's total hazardous waste in 2003 was 1.1 million tons.

Rosinski eventually would like to produce a virtual tour that could be used in classrooms and for educational purposes. “Short term, we just want to accommodate whoever wants to take the tour,” he said.