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Opinion: The global reason behind Chicago's 'garbage juice'

"The Gravy" raises concern for residents of Chicago's 35th Ward.
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"The Gravy" raises concern for residents of Chicago's 35th Ward.

We want to advise our listeners and readers: some of what follows might be...yucky.

I did a story years ago in which I worked alongside a Streets and Sanitation crew in Chicago's 45th Ward. The dedicated professionals in heavy protective vests, gloves and boots spoke of something called "The Gravy" the way sailors speak of The Kraken.

The Gravy is distilled when rainwater and dew dribble on all the stuff that people consign to the garbage: chicken bones, globs of mayonnaise, clumps of used-up tissues, discarded batteries, saturated cat litter—I told you this would be yucky—gnawed apples, full diapers and not-quite-empty plastic bottles of glass cleaner, cooking oil and Sprite.

When the crew hoisted a can-load into the back of our truck and...something...sloshed all over me, they clapped me on the back and said, "Congratulations! You're a real Garbage Man now! You got The Gravy on you!"

This year some residents of Chicago's 35th Ward are seeing—and smelling—something they call The Goo, or Garbage Juice, in alleys and streets. According to a report by Block Club Chicago, The Goo seems be what happens when The Gravy leaks out of a truck's hopper, leaving a slimy trail through the neighborhood.

"It smells worse than sewage," a resident named Michael Waechter is quoted as saying. "It's got a stench you wouldn't believe," although, having been seasoned with The Gravy...I would.

"It's gross," adds the local alderman, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who worries that such leaks could be hazardous as well as foul. Garbage Juice is not aloe vera gel.

The office of the Acting Commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation told us the cause of this viscous scourge is....delays in the global supply chain. The Goo seeps out because garbage truck parts erode and break down. But those parts can't be replaced right away, for the same reason car companies can't get computer chips for their components, homeowners can't replace their broken-down refrigerators or worn-out sofas and parents are being told to order children's holiday toys before Halloween.

Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at the tax firm RSM, told us, "The problem is a backlog in most ports, because there's a lack of labor"—that's truck drivers and warehouse workers—"to move goods from ports to warehouses to stores. And warehouses have been running only limited hours."

We may not always see the globalism in goo. But in today's economy, even the stink on our streets isn't just local anymore.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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