CPS tries composting pilot program

June 4, 2014

Still not sure why you should compost your food waste? Just ask a second grader at Blaine Elementary School in Lakeview.

“Because the other food that you throw away that you think you can’t compost, has to go to a landfill and that’s not good,” says 2nd grader Chloe. “It makes all these gases that are really bad.”

“After we compost this, we take it to this big composting station (and) it will go into this special microwave and then it will turn into this rich soil so we can put it in some places in the environment,” adds her classmate Harrison.

These second graders are pretty much right--except about the microwave part. They learned this as part of an 8-week pilot program that’s got Blaine students collecting their lunch scraps every Friday this spring and sending them off to a commercial composter.

From WBEZ Chicago, Chewing the Fat is a weekly podcast with food journalists Louisa Chu and Monica Eng. Together they tackle cooking, dining, culture food policy, culinary characters and more.

Partners in the program include the Chicago Community Trust, Loyola University, Seven Generations Ahead and Blaine parents. The final partner is CPS’s office of sustainability.

This was surprising, since less than a month ago -- in response to a Freedom of Information Act request -- the district told WBEZ that it neither “performs waste audits, nor knows of any schools that do.”

But today, the district acknowledges that there have actually been many such assessments in the district.

Blaine did theirs before starting the pilot and, according to parent Adam Brent, found huge potential for diverting trash from the landfill. .

“We came up with about an 88 percent diversion of total waste stream that would not go to the landfill  if we separated out the food waste and the liquids,” Brent explained.

These numbers match up closely with those from audits across the city that show that roughly half of all milk is discarded while 25 to 30 percent of all food on the tray. One recent Harvard study indicates that 60 to 75 percent of all vegetables served in schools also end up in the trash.

CPS says it’s aware of the problem and encouraging schools to come up with creative solutions. Among these are dozens of on-site composting programs that have sprouted up all over the past decade.

Jen Nelson has been working on the issue for five years as Seven Generations’ Zero Waste Program Manager. She calls on-site composting program a good first step, but notes it can only really tackle fruits and vegetables.

“But when you can look at opportunities for commercial composting you can all of the sudden get to the meat and dairy and bones and much larger volume of that food waste,” Nelson said.

For instance, the day we visited Blaine, compost bins were full of half-eaten pizza that would’ve otherwise ended up in the landfill.  

Still, the 45 pounds of scraps that Blaine collects each week represent a drop in the bucket. The project’s primary goal is to figure out how to expand commercial school composting in Illinois, a state where it’s still much cheaper to send scraps to the landfill.

But if Nelson has her way, that won’t be the case for long. She serves on the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition aimed at making composting as attractive in Illinois as it is in states like California. And she says that getting groups like CPS on board, could be key.

“I spoke to a gentleman who owns a compost facility out of state and his comment to me was ‘wow, if Chicago Public Schools were doing commercial composting I would site a facility near Chicago as quickly as I could because it would be worth it. I could make money from that’.”

If and when all of the pieces fall into place, Nelson estimates that the district could divert more than 13,000 tons of its CPS cafeteria waste from the landfill each year.  

But the physical matter of waste reduction is just part of the story. This spring, Nelson trained dozens of teachers in a new “zero waste” curriculum (in alignment with Common Core) that will roll out to CPS classrooms in the fall.

“We’ve been having a lot of fun training teachers and giving them really cool hands-on activities like making a model landfill and model compost in a two liter bottle,” she said. “The students can build it and observe the differences between the two systems and see why things can biodegrade in one and not in the other. It’s an exciting opportunity to help teachers really bring it into the classroom.”

Finally, Nelson says an even broader goal is to plant the seeds for a new healthy crop of what she calls “zero waste ambassadors.”

And from the words of the precocious second graders at Blaine, it sounds like this crop is well on its way to taking root.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org