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Composting Beyond the Backyard

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In Chicago we love our food. We eat of lot of it, and that means we end up tossing a lot of it in the garbage as well. By some estimates up to a third of our trash consists of food waste—as much as 200 semi-trailer loads a day. So some people are trying to recycle our left-over food through composting. Now composting in the backyard or on the kitchen counter can be a hard enough task. But for people trying to compost on a larger scale, the challenges can be daunting. As part of our series Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, we bring you this report.

Reporter Ken Davis Tours a Compost Pile

ambi: Pacific Garden Mission chapel, singing in distance

When the Pacific Garden Mission relocated to Chicago’s near South Side last year, they decided that their brand new shelter for the homeless should be a place to address environmental as well as social issues. Their cafeteria kitchens were creating five hundred pounds of food waste a week, and it was all going in the garbage. Since no waste hauler offered composting services, they decided to do it themselves, in-house.

ambi: Sound of paper ripping

KLEHM: We’re using newspapers as bedding, we’re shredding them right now.

That’s Nancy Klehm. She’s in charge of the Mission’s sun-drenched greenhouses, where residents are now growing lettuce, peppers and other crops for the Mission’s kitchens. The plants are thriving on the Mission’s homegrown compost.

KLEHM: We then take these newspapers and mix them with some spent coffee grounds, also from the cafeteria and it kinda keeps them so they stick together and then we fluff them up and we put them into the worm beds. Those worm beds are big plywood boxes the residents build. In fact those worms are probably the Mission’s biggest crop.

MCCAULEY: We started out October 15 of last year, we had three bins.

Volunteer Dubward McCauley.

MCCAULEY: And just in that short a time to show you how fast they multiply we’ve got thirty one bins now.
DAVIS: So how long has this paper been in here?
MCCAULEY: I would say about a week. ‘Cause we’re constantly putting paper in here.

And food waste. Those multiplying worms are not only gobbling up all of the Mission’s food waste, they’re also munching away on spoiled produce coming from a nearby Dominicks and Whole Foods.

MCCAULEY: And we’ll put some in the middle. And by the time we get back here, if today is Wednesday, by Saturday this’ll be gone.

About two miles west of the Mission and literally a world away a scheme to compost food waste on a larger scale is proving a bit more complicated.

The Frontera Grill is one of Chicago’s upscale restaurants. Its dining room is the essence of decorum. That’s in sharp contrast to the controlled mayhem going on behind a set of double doors at the back of the house, where Frontera’s chefs churn out meals for 6-800 people a day.

ambi: kitchen noise

Once management decided to recycle Frontera’s food waste that meant enlisting the restaurant’s 100-person staff to scrape all of those table scraps, kitchen trimmings and waste into special bins and haul them to the alley. Bryan Enyart is Frontera’s managing chef.

ENYART: We started out with one garbage can and one bin outside, one 55-gallon drum outside, and that went well for a week, and then next week we doubled it and then doubled it and doubled it ‘til where we’re at now, which is two tons of compostable matter every week.

Unlike the Mission, Frontera has no space to do composting on-site. So the restaurant formed a partnership with the Resource Center, a community-based environmental organization dedicated to recycling and the re-use of materials.

DUNN: Well, this is City Farm on Chicago’s North Side.

And that is Ken Dunn, who runs the Resource Center.

DUNN: We’re growing here only in compost, compost made from food and yard waste gathered here in Chicago. It’s one acre, and we have a thousand tons of compost that we’re growing in.

Some of that compost underfoot came from food waste Dunn picked up from Frontera. In fact, we’re sitting in a large hothouse filled with pepper plants. Those peppers are headed for Frontera’s kitchen, a small example of sustainable agriculture brought about through their partnership.

But there’s a really big catch. Dunn can compost only a small fraction of the huge volume of stuff he collects from Frontera at his community garden. The rest he has to send to the dumps. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Right now there are no large-scale food-waste sites in Illinois. Why? Because nobody wants a compost facility in their neighborhood.

There are good reasons for that, and Doug Clay knows them all too well.

CLAY: You’re gonna have a lot more odors with food waste than you would with landscape waste, so you get the odor issue, the vector issue.

Clay works for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He manages all permits for hazardous waste and disposal sites in the state. He says he likes the idea of big-scale compost, but there must be controls on the smells, and, um, those vectors.

CLAY: Vectors are rats, mice, birds. Those kinds of animals that would be attracted to the compost facility.

Clay says there are only six permitted facilities in Illinois that can legally take in compostables, and with a couple of minor exceptions, they’re really for yard waste, things like grass clippings and leaves. He says none of the big waste haulers, like Allied Waste and Waste Management, have even applied to run large compost sites, because there’s no money in it. By some estimates, it could cost $50 a ton to process and manage the stuff. It costs less than half that to throw it in a dump.

And what do you get for your money? Everyone assumes it would be fertilizer for food crops. But if you’re going to spread it over your bean and tomato plants, it has to be clean. Turns out, that’s not easy to guarantee.

CLAY: The person receiving the material has to take steps to make sure that they’re receiving just the food waste that’s allowed. That means in some cases sorting through the waste to make sure there’s nothing else in there.

Picking through thousands of gallons of urban wet waste to ferret out old batteries and paint chips, and testing it for toxic elements, that’s a challenge. Ken Dunn and other environmentalists are undaunted, though. They say a smaller facility, which would only accept waste from grocery stores, food processors, or restaurants, could produce safe and clean compost. Dunn’s even working on a 200 ton-a-day operation he thinks could open in Chicago by next year.

For Chicago Public Radio, this is Ken Davis.

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