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Most of the discussion over reducing and reusing waste in Chicago centers on the city’s halting recycling programs, and with good reason: in 2007 Chicago residents and businesses produced about 8 million tons of garbage, up about 70 percent from a decade earlier, and recycled a little more than half of it. While construction debris accounted for most of the recycled material, easily recyclable household waste like metal, glass, paper, and plastic was generally landfilled, costing money in tipping fees and trucking fuel while driving up greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, that's not Chicago’s only waste of waste. The city estimates that Chicagoans are landfilling about 850,000 tons of organic garbage each year, most of it food scraps, that could be turned into soil-enriching compost. And the situation isn’t much different across the rest of Illinois, which generated about 26 million tons of waste in 2007. As much as 33 percent of it was organic material, but only 2 percent of it was composted.
The problem is that in urban areas like Chicago composting essentially has to be done at your home. At times there have been a privately run programs, but no system is in place for the large-scale collection of food waste. (It’s a little easier to deal with landscape waste, though collection of that in Chicago is about as erratic as commodities recycling.) At the same time, old state regulations have severely restricted the ability of private companies to start food composting operations.
The obstacles may not be in place for long. A growing number of public officials are joining environmentalists and waste management companies in saying it’s time to change the way we deal with garbage, and composting is near the top of the list.
State senator Heather Steans, a north side Democrat, recently introduced a bill that would create a new regulatory category for commercial composting facilities, making it easier and more economically viable for private companies to get into the business. She said she’s encountered a little nervousness about the possibility of odor and rodent problems long associated with composting sites, but stressed that new technology has eliminated most of those issues. Most of the states around Illinois already allow commercial food waste composting, Steans said.
“There’s a real growing market for compost, since it’s such a great additive to soil,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea from that business standpoint, and it reduces the amount of trash we’re generating. I don’t see what the downside is.”
Meanwhile Chicago officials are looking for ways to get more people composting in the city, and they’ve started by issuing a request for proposals to develop “innovative approaches toward the collection and processing of organic wastes.” Suzanne Malec-McKenna, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment, said they hope to award two grants of up to $100,000 apiece to groups starting programs in the city limits.
“We don’t want a study—we want them to start something and keep it going,” she said. “We want to see if we can try a couple of different technologies and see if we can apply them on a wider scale.”
Eight groups submitted proposals; the department is going through them now with the aim of getting programs running in the coming months. “If we’re able to demonstrate the long term economic benefits of this, and demonstrate that the end product is useful in the city for urban farming and landscaping, then we’ll have a good argument for expanding it.”
One of the proposals was submitted by the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-Op, whose conversations with Steans helped prompt her to draft the composting bill. Carrie Langford, the group’s assistant director of environmental affairs, said it's planning to create a composting facility in Chicago even if it doesn't win a grant.
Langford said co-op members had become frustrated that they could buy compostable restaurant supplies (their efforts to do that was the subject of a Reader story) but were throwing all their organic waste into the trash. Until a citywide system is in place, she said, the organization decided it needed to form its own.
It’s currently looking at a site on the west side, and if that doesn’t work out it’s hoping to acquire brownfield property elsewhere in the city. The plans call for composting 80,000 tons of organic material a year to start and perhaps growing after that. “Eventually we really want to open it up to anyone who can give us high-quality, uncontaminated material,” Langford said.
The co-op is committed to the project even though waste disposal costs may go up in the short run, she said, and over time they expect to be able to find markets for the compost. Malec-McKenna predicts she's right. "Compost is green gold," she said. "There's a demand for it, and we want to figure out how we can be poised to take advantage."
UPDATE: A clarification is in order. The proposal discussed here wasn't actually submitted by the co-op but by an entity called Chicago Composts LLC, which was formed by co-op co-founder Dan Rosenthal. And if you're really interested in urban composting, check out this fascinating piece from the New York Times.