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For most city residents it's difficult to recycle effectively. If you live in a house or small apartment building served by city sanitation crews, you're most likely going to have to take your recyclables to a drop-off center or take the chance that blue bagging will actually keep your newspapers, cans, and bottles out of a landfill. If you live in a building with more than four units, you're paying (in rent or condo fees) for a private waste hauler to take your garbage. Unless recycling is part of your building's deal with the garbage company—or you're taking it to a drop-off center on your own—it's unlikely any is happening at all.
But for those who are serious about reducing household waste and are willing to do the work themselves, the city's trying to make it easier to compost without getting busted.
Earlier this week the City Council's Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection signed off on an amendment to the city's dumping laws that would encourage people to create backyard or indoor compost out of organic waste such as food, lawn clippings, coffee grounds and filters, and vacuum cleaner bags. City officials say that as much as 40 percent of Chicago's garbage could be kept out of landfills through composting. While that figure might be high—national studies have found that more like 25 percent of household trash is made up of food and yard waste—the point remains the same. Through some simple steps, people could turn a good portion of their garbage into nutrient-rich soil while saving the money and environmental costs (including air pollution generated by garbage trucks) of burying it in dumps.
Composting isn't illegal currently, but if the full council signs off on the amendment next month the law would be clearer about the materials allowed to be used in the process. "I think some of us may have had an occasional complaint from someone questioning the composting [activity] of a neighbor," said 19th Ward alderman Ginger Rugai, who chairs the committee.
The main concerns are that a pile of decomposing waste will stink and attract unwelcome critters. The amended law prohibits any composting that draws "insects, rodents, birds and other vectors or pests" or emits "nuisance" odors. If you compost the right way, though—grinding up the materials, keeping out pieces of meat and dairy products, covering the composting pile or container—these issues shouldn't arise, according to Suzanne Malec McKenna, a deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Environment. Apartment dwellers can even compost in a box under the kitchen sink. "It's really a no-brainer," she said.
Last year the city distributed 3,000 composting bins, and Malec McKenna said most community gardens use some kind of composting. But it would take a citywide cultural revolution in waste reduction and recycling as well as composting to make a major impact, because Chicagoans continue to generate and bury ever larger piles of garbage. In 2005, Chicago sent about 5 million tons of trash to landfills, up from 4.2 million tons the year before and 3 million tons in the mid-90s, according to the Illinois EPA .