How citizens and experts launched statewide food scrap recycling

P2 Impact

How citizens and experts launched statewide food scrap recycling

Nearly 20 cubic yards of pumpkins, collected at the City of Wheaton’s first annual “Pumpkin Pitch”
Illinois Food Scrap Coalition

One Saturday morning in the quiet Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Ill., two teenagers were found smashing hundreds of jack-o'-lanterns in a government parking lot. This wasn’t an act of vandalism or a post-election protest. It was an environmental movement taking shape across Illinois.

On Nov. 8, Wheaton held its first Pumpkin Pitch, a city-sponsored event for rotting jack-o'-lanterns and other decorative gourds past their prime. The three-hour drop-off period attracted hundreds of residents and yielded nearly 20 cubic yards of pumpkins, all destined for Compost Supply, a nearby compost facility.

Breaking it down

"If it weren't for the high school volunteers having so much fun smashing the pumpkins, that Dumpster would have been overflowing," remarked Kay McKeen, organizer of the event. Kay is a member of Wheaton’s Environmental Commission as well as executive director of SCARCE (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education), an epicenter of environmental education in Chicago’s suburbs.

McKeen and SCARCE had dreamed of hosting a post-Halloween pumpkin collection for years, but permitting such an event in Illinois proved difficult. Wheaton and several other municipalities finally were able to test the Pumpkin Pitch concept this year thanks to a fast-growing and powerful group called the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition.

IFSC was launched in December 2012 by a group of government, not-for-profit and waste industry professionals who saw potential for the growth of food scrap composting in Illinois. In just under two years, the group has grown to over 150 member organizations across the state, fueled by little funding and a lot of passion. Here’s a recap of the organization’s strategy and accomplishments over the past two years.

Policy and regulations

In 2009, the Illinois legislature passed Public Act 96-0418, making it possible to site a new or expand an existing commercial food scrap composting operation in Illinois without going through the state's lengthy and expensive local siting law. This legislation significantly improved the economics of composting in Illinois and created momentum that eventually led to the formation of the Food Scrap Coalition.

Truck picks up food scraps for compost from Food for Thought Catering

ISFC's website spotlights composting success stories, such as that of Food For Thought. By collecting food scraps in bins (shown here being loaded to go to the compost facility), the catering business has cut its garbage pickups in half.

In 2013, IFSC members rallied behind Public Act 98-0239, which removed permitting requirements for very small (under 25 cubic yards) processing sites and expanded opportunities for urban and suburban farms to compost.

Jen Walling is executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council and chairs the IFSC Policy Committee. Her group helped write both key pieces of composting policy. She explained, "These laws directly contribute to job growth and environmental protection."

Most recently, Walling and the committee have worked with the Illinois EPA to authorize one-day municipal collection events for pumpkins, clearing the way for the Wheaton event and many others across the state.

Reducing barriers to entry for food scrap hauling and processing businesses is also an important motivator for the policy committee. Currently, permitted compost facilities collectively have only 50,000 tons of processing capacity — roughly 3 percent of the total 1.8 million tons of food scrap generated every year in Illinois. Clearly, some major incentives and scale-up opportunities need to be created in the near future if the IFSC is to meet its objectives.

Market development

Of course, policy alone does not a business plan make. Enter the IFSC Market Development committee, which has been researching ways to greatly increase demand for finished compost.

We Compost logo
ISFC
The We Compost recognition program gives participants a window decal to entice customers.
In spring 2014, the IFSC market development committee surveyed 50 organizations that use compost for applications ranging from landscape design to large-scale agriculture. Although respondents indicated that their use of compost is set to increase in coming years, other responses revealed a lack of clarity and standardization in compost markets. For example, less than 10 percent of respondents reported that the compost they buy is labeled with feedstock, geographic or third party certification information. All of these factors are important parts of building strong and reliable compost markets.

Through the market development committee, the IFSC is raising awareness among potential buyers of compost and organizing opportunities for companies and individuals to purchase food scrap compost made in Illinois.

We Compost certification

Another way to grow composting efforts is to make it the cool thing to do. For this purpose, IFSC's Education and Outreach Committee created a free, simple certification program for businesses and institutions participating in commercial compost programs. Participation in the We Compost program involves an online sign-up and simple compost program verification step. Participants receive a window decal, recognition on the IFSC’s website and Google map and access to guidance from a network of peers.

To date, over 100 businesses have joined the We Compost program, proudly displaying their window decals and raising awareness among fellow food scrap generators and the public.

Challenges and Solutions Project

Throughout 2014, IFSC has conducted a series of five public forums across Illinois, which targeted stakeholders ranging from compost facility operators and restaurant owners to interested citizens.

As of this writing, IFSC is preparing a synthesis report for the state’s Task Force on the Advancement of Materials Recycling. The report will include an assessment of the challenges, barriers, and opportunities for food scrap composting in Illinois as well as recommendations for policy and infrastructure solutions that will advance the practice in the state. Key topics include facility siting and regulation; best practices in odor control and contamination reduction; infrastructure development; municipal and state policy; economic opportunity assessment; collection, transportation and route density; end product quality standards; sales and distribution of compost; and education and marketing.

From passion to pumpkins

It is important to note that IFSC's work has received some funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity as well as the Chicago Community Trust. However, most of the labor has been donated by individuals and organizations fired up about reducing food waste and getting it out of landfills and back to our soil.

That kind of excitement brought so many Wheaton residents out on a chilly Saturday morning to drop off their pumpkins for composting. The Pumpkin Pitch was, in many ways, the culmination of IFSC efforts and a clear milestone in the organization’s short history.

The IFSC has done many things right in mobilizing so many people in just two years. These include stakeholder forums, statewide outreach, policy research, an information-rich website and cultural interventions such as We Compost and active social media presence. But there is still a lot of work to do, and momentum is sure to build.