Illinois Residents Need More Options for Disposing of Food Scraps

  • Sending organic material to landfills cuts landfill efficiency and life-expectancy.
  • Diverting organic material to composting helps prevent climate change by reducing methane release from landfills.
  • Composting recycles organic material into nutrient-dense soil but presents many challenges that require public education to encourage participation.
  • Illinois ranks fourth in the nation for the amount of food waste recycled, yet many Illinois residents are unaware of their options.

Since 1986, the State of Illinois has worked to reduce the amount and type of refuse that goes to landfills. Food waste composting programs have grown, yet a high percentage of Illinoisans remain unaware of the importance of composting and the habits they can pursue to make it a regular part of daily life.

Data from the 2015 Illinois Commodity/Waste Generation and Characterization Study Update demonstrate that organics comprise nearly one third of Illinois’ waste stream [1]. Sending such material, which includes both yard waste and food scraps, to landfills cuts the efficiency and life-expectancy of landfills by as much as 20 percent. Organic material that makes its way to landfills releases dangerous levels of greenhouse gas and wastes the nutrients that remain in the material.

In 2013:

  • 42 landfills in Illinois expected to be completely filled within 21 years.[2]
  • The landfills around Chicago expected to fill within 11 years.
  • Few options for new landfills existed within 100 miles of the city.
  • Only 357 food scrap composting facilities existed across the nation as compared to 3,453 yard waste composting facilities.[3]
  • New York City estimated that they buried 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills at a cost of nearly $80 per ton.[4]
  • Infrastructure needed to be developed.

By 2018, the EPA estimated that 2.6 million tons of food or 4.1 percent of wasted food was composted nationwide[5]—quick progress, but more is needed.

As much as 20 percent of residential trash comes from food scraps. Diverting food scraps to composting reduces the amount of methane escaping from landfills. Purposefully composting these scraps in controlled settings creates less methane and produces useful soil additives. Composting preserves the nutrients for reuse in agriculture, residential landscaping, and public green spaces. Additionally, the controlled setting can capture more of the released biogas for use as a renewable energy source.

In 1990, to help decrease the levels of methane released, Illinois banned yard waste from landfills. Since that time, many areas have established seasonal yard waste collection. Food scraps could easily ride along with yard waste without adding substantially to hauling costs for the cities or residents. Many states have passed laws to loosen rules that restricted a facility from combining food scraps with yard waste.

As awareness of the dangers of climate change grows, many concerned citizens are seeking small actions they can take to make a difference. Composting food scraps can yield multiple benefits for the environment. If communities work together to provide options, better results can be achieved. For example, where curbside pickup is unavailable or only available seasonally, consumers who care about the environment can be trained to bring their food scraps for drop off at local food markets or other collection sites.

In rural areas or those where homes sit on spacious lots, onsite composting works well. In many regions of Illinois, communities provide public education and assistance with equipment for onsite composting.

Still, many people find composting too challenging. Many are confused about what can be composted. Some are turned off by esthetic issues, smells, or vermin associated with festering pails, bins, and piles. Also, those of us who are less likely to take on outdoor projects need other options. More advanced public education can help.

For instance, emptying compost pails daily, adding baking soda, or freezing food scraps in compostable bags can prevent smells and infestations in the home. In the same way we learned to process other recyclables, we can develop new habits around composting.

Residents who don’t have room outside or don’t relish maintaining their own compost can lobby their garbage haulers to accept food scraps. Many waste processing facilities now accept food scraps, so the option can work for most communities. In the same way citizen pressure influenced garbage haulers to provide recycling services, citizen action can help expand food waste collection options.

Businesses that deal with food scraps have an incentive to compost to improve their overall environmental and social sustainability scores. Often these commercial programs are privately contracted so they are over and above the results achieved by public efforts. Citizens can check local companies’ web sites or annual reports to find out if they prioritize food waste recycling. They can also steer their business and investment to companies that handle food waste responsibly—and the issue applies to more companies than you might expect. Any company that provides cafeteria services or orders in catering for events can influence the stream of food waste.

A strong market exists for the purchase of compost, and its use helps keep the environment healthy. The use of this rich soil additive instead of fertilizer enhances local water safety. Runoff from fertilizers can cause “dead zones” in overly fertilized water sources, whereas compost both decreases runoff and further purifies any water that does escape.

The majority of efforts to increase food scrap composting in Illinois have grown from grass roots campaigns of local individuals, regional coalitions, and waste haulers. The Illinois Food Scrap Coalition (IFSC) comprises 150 organizations and individuals across Illinois. The group spent several years researching the challenges and educating elected officials, those interested in pursuing industrial composting, and other advocates.

The IFSC established a transfer station pilot program, improved food labeling standards, encouraged state procurement and use of compost, and encouraged reasonable revision of compost processing site permitting regulations.

In 2015, the Coalition reported that 40 waste processors throughout the state were composting food scraps. In the region surrounding Kane County, more than 47 curbside collection programs now accept food scraps. Creative options include one-day collection events for special materials such as composting pumpkins after Halloween.

Widespread food waste composting programs are the next logical step toward reducing waste and maintaining a healthier Illinois. Caring citizens can help in many ways:

  • Learn more and try composting your own scraps.
  • Find out if your community or local garbage hauler provide education or collection options.
  • If your local hauler collects yard waste seasonally, lobby for food scraps to be allowed with yard waste.
  • Organize a local educational or collection event to develop awareness of available options for composting.

You can make a difference for a healthier Illinois!


[1] Illinoiscomposts.org, “Municipal Composting,” May 2019. http://illinoiscomposts.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Municipal-Composting-one-pager-1.pdf

[2] Illinois Food Scrap Coalition, “Food Scrap Composting Challenges and Solutions in Illinois Report,” January 2015. https://illinoisrecycles.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/IFSC-Food-Scrap-Composting-Challenges-and-Solutions-in-Illinois-Report-2015.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brian Clark Howard, “How Cities Compost Mountains of Food Waste,” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/6/130618-food-waste-composting-nyc-san-francisco/

[5] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Reducing the Impact of Wasted Food by Feeding the Soil and Composting,” Sustainable Management of Food. https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/reducing-impact-wasted-food-feeding-soil-and-composting

Published by ElizabethSargis

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