Fighting For Scraps: What It Would Take For Chicago To Get Citywide Composting

compost curious city
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
compost curious city
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Fighting For Scraps: What It Would Take For Chicago To Get Citywide Composting

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Editor’s note: Spoiler alert! Chicago has no citywide program to compost food scraps and this story looks at why. But before we dig into this (and before you start sending comments and questions!) here are handy tips for residents who want to salvage their scraps today. Enjoy!

Natalie Ziemba is a vegetarian and a juicer, meaning she peels, cores and chops a lot of fruit and vegetables.

“It was almost something that haunted me because of how much food waste I was disposing of daily,” she explains over a veggie omelet breakfast. “Especially when I juiced and all the pulp went in the trash.”

Natalie says she felt terrible about sending all those food scraps to landfills, only to rot in a bag and belch out methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, according to federal authorities. That’s instead of becoming clean compost, which can reduce water pollution, repair topsoil, naturally fertilize crops and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

So she and her mom, Barb, signed up for a private composting service. It sends a guy on a bike to her mom’s Bridgeport home every two weeks to pick up scraps and bring them to a facility that turns them into soil enriching compost. It’s a super cool program, but it only handles about 7,000 pounds of organic waste a week. Meanwhile, Chicago residents — whose garbage is almost 30 percent compostable — make about 2,000 times that.

So Natalie wants to know: What would it take to have a municipal citywide food scrap composting program in Chicago like they do in, say, Oak Park?

It’s a variation on a question Curious City’s received over the years and it’s only grown more intriguing as towns across the nation — and more than 20 in Illinois — have launched their own food scrap pick-up programs. But in Chicago, where the mayor says he wants “the greenest city in the world,” there is none.

We’ve been digging into this and here’s the bottom line: Something as simple as making dirt (sort of) out of millions of people’s food scraps is actually pretty complicated. And any meaningful program would involve changing how the city pays for trash services, how workers handle a new stream of waste, and how ordinary residents sort their garbage. And a surprise: Even staunch advocates for municipal composting suggest the process might need to be slower than we’d like.

Black gold in Oak Park: An example for Chicago?

Natalie’s asked us to look at the program in Oak Park as a model. It’s a compelling comparison, especially given the similarities between the two municipalities.

For one, the village has been running its own public program for three years. Second, it operates under the same state laws and regulations that Chicago does (that is, there’s no state mandate that cities compost kitchen scraps). And, interestingly, the village’s compost service provider (Waste Management) also happens to have a trash-dumping contract with Chicago. Lastly, on the spectrum of the politically possible, Oak Park’s program is on the “easy” range — it’s voluntary and it’s not subsidized.

How Chicago and Oak Park stack up on the composting spectrum:

Oak Park’s director of Environmental Services, Karen Rozmus, says the program started a few years ago when she was negotiating a new hauling contract and talking with Waste Management. The company asked how it could improve its service to the community. Rozmus recalls replying, “I see the future, and the future is composting food scraps.”

To see the Oak Park program in action, we checked out the various steps from Oak Park to Romeoville and back:

Beginning with 100 homes, the program today serves nearly 1,100, or about 10 percent of households included in the village’s waste-hauling contract, according to Rozmus.

Each home participating in the service pays an extra $14 a month on top of the current $20.29 rate for garbage pickup. This, Rozmus says, has kept the program cost-neutral from the start.

“We do not subsidize anything when it comes to refuse and recycling,” she says, “because I’ve seen programs that are subsidized when they are pilots. Everyone’s excited, and then when the bill comes due, it fails.”

Rozmus says program subscribers have been thrilled with the free compost they get twice a year, as well as the awareness it’s brought them about the amount of food they throw away.

What’s stopping Chicago?

So why doesn’t Chicago have a program like Oak Park’s or one even farther up in the municipal composting spectrum?

Well, there are several reasons. First: No one forces the city to do it. Unlike California and Vermont, Illinois has no mandates that enforce waste diversion targets or ban food scraps from landfills. The state does require composting of yard waste — which is why Chicago offers separate yard waste pickup when residents call 311 — but not food scraps. In fact, it only became legal to commercially compost food scraps in Illinois in 2010.

Second: economics. Illinois enjoys fairly low tipping fees — the basic price to drop a ton of trash into a landfill. Some estimates suggest the state has a relatively large amount of landfill space left: perhaps 25 years’ worth at current use rates.

In theory, composting would divert food waste from a city’s trash system and reduce attendant tipping fees. But composting a ton of kitchen scraps currently costs more than tossing that same ton into a landfill — currently about $46 under the Chicago contract. So, when it’s cheaper to landfill food scraps than to compost them, that’s what most states and municipalities do.

Towns or cities that choose to compost in the face of low tipping fees and no mandates are often driven by other factors. For example, Rozmus says Oak Park’s program was spurred by township waste diversion goals. Beyond that, she says, residents were enthusiastic to compost, and approximately 10 percent of households have been willing to pay for it.

With these factors in mind, we take the question of launching a municipal food scrap program to Deputy Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Chris Sauve.

“Let’s put it this way,” he says, “we’d pilot something before we’d launch it citywide.”

He says, right now, his department is busy trying to expand recycling to multi-unit residences by the end of the year — in part spurred by another Curious City story.

Still, encouragingly, Sauve says key people have been studying the models in Oak Park and New York City, with an eye to adopting one in Chicago.

“We’ve seen a lot of municipalities dipping their toes in the water and testing things out, and so it’s a distinct possibility,” Sauve says. “It’s the next logical evolution for our program.”

Although he wouldn’t commit to a timeframe on a Chicago pilot, Sauve agrees it would work best in a neighborhood that has shown a good track record of recycling. These would be Lincoln Square, Lake View, Old Town, West Ridge and Streeterville, who’ve achieved up to 18 percent recycling rates.

What are the prospects for change?

A pilot program is one thing, but what are the chances trash laws and trash economics will tip in favor of a full Chicago-wide program?

According to Gary Cuneen, executive director of Oak Park-based Seven Generations Ahead environmental advocacy group, the answer is: not super soon. First, he says, the city may need to be goaded by state mandates.

“On the West Coast and increasingly in other areas, these are mandated programs, so just like picking up your garbage, food scrap composting is part of the package,” he says.

Cuneen’s group and others have formed The Illinois Food Scrap Coalition to develop proposals for such mandates and even waste bans in the state, but it may take years to push something through.

In the meantime, Seven Generations Ahead program manager Jen Nelson is working angles beyond the statehouse.  

“Right now in Illinois the infrastructure is still developing for this to be affordable,” Nelson says, explaining that the state needs haulers, facilities that accept both food and yard waste, and customers to create a strong market.

Nelson, though, cautions composting advocates who might be tempted to push residential programs too quickly.

“When you’re building infrastructure around foods scrap composting, residential programs are not necessarily the first step in building that,” she says. “You end up having a huge education component needed if residents are going to sort in their own homes to keep contamination down and make sure only the right materials go in your compost bin.”

Nelson thinks the key is to recruit big players first: These would include “hospitals, large schools, grocery stores and restaurants with a huge volume of food scraps and a staff who can learn how to sort appropriately. That’s the way to start.”

To that end Seven Generations Ahead has conducted composting partnerships in 11 Chicago Public Schools, and will expand it to 20 by the end of the school year.

Courtesy of Seven Generations Ahead
Students at Carl Von Linne Elementary School learn to sort scraps through Seven Generations Ahead’s “Zero Waste Ambassadors” program.
Courtesy of Seven Generations Ahead
Students at Carl Von Linne Elementary School learn to sort scraps through Seven Generations Ahead’s “Zero Waste Ambassadors” program.

Nelson says she’d love to expand to hundreds of schools right away, but the program still operates on grants. And she knows that launching too fast can backfire. She cites a food scrap composting program in New York City schools that skimped on the education piece and ended up with so much contamination in the loads that they had to shut down one composting facility and reboot.

While mandates and higher tipping fees could push Chicago toward food scrap composting, Nelson says developing a new attitude toward compost can make a difference, too.

“We don’t have a demand in the market for finished compost,” she says. “I think that seems to tie back to people not understanding the value of food scrap compost and the nutrients that are returned to the soil.”

So, Natalie and Barb, a pilot program may be coming to Chicago shortly, but a full-scale food scrap collection program like those out west is still probably years away. It will need education, legislation, market support and a strong gust of political and public enthusiasm to push it along. It might also require starting outside residential composting altogether.

When we bring this news to Natalie, she’s surprisingly more pleased than disappointed.

“Even the fact that it’s on their radar is something I’m hopeful about,” she says. “That fact that the city recognizes the need … It means it’s not just a lofty idea. They’re thinking about it.”

More about our questioner

WBEZ/Monica Eng
Mother and daughter Barb and Natalie Ziemba in their Bridgeport backyard next to a city-issued water barrel. It’s just one of the ways they try to do their part for the environment.
WBEZ/Monica Eng
Mother and daughter Barb and Natalie Ziemba in their Bridgeport backyard next to a city-issued water barrel. It’s just one of the ways they try to do their part for the environment.

Natalie and Barb Ziemba are a daughter and mom from Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Barb, who is retired, raised her four children in Bridgeport, coached junior volleyball, served as a Chicago Architecture Foundation docent and is a member of Landmarks Illinois.

Natalie says her family walks the line between being a traditional Bridgeport family and a not-so-traditional Bridgeport family.

“We know our neighbors very well, but I drive my hybrid and my brother bikes everywhere,” says Natalie, who recently moved to Schaumburg to be closer to her marketing job in McHenry County.

Today the two share a composting account with Healthy Soil Compost, which picks up their food scraps every two weeks. It’s just another step in a long history of green-minded behavior in their house.

“We started in the ‘80s,” Barb says. “We would go down to the recycling center at 39th and Ashland and sort our green, brown and clear bottles and cans. And we weren’t the only ones. Those bins would be full.”

“It’s just something we did,” Natalie says. “That’s how I was raised, so these days I still lose sleep sometimes just thinking about what goes into landfills.”

“Yeah,” says Barb. “We have to think about the next generation of kids, and of what we leave behind.”

Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her at @monicaeng.