NTAE: Creating a Culture of Composting Feature Story

Big Goals, Big Opportunity

Education & Advocacy

Awareness of the food waste problem and the need for composting is growing.

The EPA goal of reducing organic food waste by 50% in the next eight years is ambitious. In 2015, only 1.3% of food scraps in Illinois were diverted from landfills. But awareness of the food waste problem and the need for composting is growing. There are now 70 municipalities in eight counties that offer food scrap and yard waste pick-up, and the City of Chicago has prioritized supporting Pumpkin Smash- es and organic waste composting at community gardens, and is working on a pilot for residential food scrap pick up.

Perhaps the most visible events in Illinois Exten- sion’s composting initiative are Pumpkin Smashes. Jack O’Lanterns are a huge contributor to organic waste—composting pumpkins can prevent tons of methane emissions and save hundreds of thousands of dollars in landfill tipping fees. At a Pumpkin Smash, attendees catapult, throw, and smash their pumpkins for fun. Afterward, the pumpkins are taken to a com- post facility. The 12 events Illinois Extension has held since 2019 have reduced organic waste, shined a spotlight on the environmental work the organization does, and expanded its reach in certain communities.

Pictured on Previous Page: Pumpkin Smashes, like this one in 2020, provide education on composting while keeping pumpkins out of landfills. Pictured Below: Small-business food waste audits sort food into several categories, including compostable and noncompostable . Pictured on next page: Attendees brainstorm at Illinois Extension’s May 2023 composting summit.

As experts in agriculture and environ- mental protection, and with deep roots in rural and urban communities, Extension professionals are in an ideal position to promote composting. “It expands the focus of our work beyond the growing of food and links it to consumption and disposal,” Pereira says. “People in other communities are likely as eager as they are in ours for Extension partnership, because they trust us to deliver educa- tion-based programming that improves the quality of life for everyone.”

Our tips for creating and hosting a Pumpkin Smash

(See “Priority Communities.”) The idea of hosting Pumpkin Smashes to provide educa- tion on composting is spreading. In 2023, four new Illinois Extension-sponsored events in Lake, Macomb, McHenry, and McLean counties were set to take place in addition to four or more events in Chicago (Cook County). Pereira has also received inquiries from neighboring states’ Extension Services that might want to host Smashes. The two other major components of the NTAE Expansion project were the following: • A “Building a Culture of Composting” summit on May 12, 2023, to break down information silos, build collaboration, and empower organizations such as municipal sanitation departments and composting advocates to work together to promote and make composting easier and more accessible to more people. The team will follow up with the 80 attendees in one year to see what new initiatives have emerged. Meantime, informal feedback has been positive, with attendees saying, “This event was incredible. I am still processing everything I have learned. The contacts I made were worth the trip alone.” A local policy advocate reported that meeting a large waste hauler and hearing their perspective was “eye opening” and that they are rethinking how to include that perspective in future efforts. Overall, the team hopes that collaborations will emerge to help speed support for and adoption of composting throughout the region. A draft report was to be released to all attendees in Septem- ber 2023, followed by a publicly available report in fall 2023. • Encouraging small food businesses to reduce their compostable waste going to landfill by providing waste audits, technical assistance, and trial food scrap composting services. Preliminary results from the five businesses indicate that of the 846.6 total pounds sorted, 62% (522.2 pounds) was compostable material. The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) performed the waste audits, sorting two days’ worth of garbage and recycling at each business, specifically looking at organic waste generation. Organic waste was further sorted into categories— potentially avoidable food waste, unavoidable food waste, and non-food waste compostables—to provide tailored recommendations to each business for how to reduce organic waste generation.

Photo: Sunny Benbelkacem, The Value Web

The NTAE advisors who supported the composting team during the grant year say they are particularly impressed with the group’s tenacity and drive. “Kathryn and her team have a passion for the mission of composting and have a clear vision of the change they want to make in greater Chicagoland,” says Jimmy Henning. Adds Dyremple Marsh, “This energetic and passionate team works at solutions until they are achieved to make Chicagoland a more compost-friendly environment. Their commitment, passion, and dedication to seeing composting become a part of every household in greater Chicagoland are evident in all they do.” ■

Priority Communities While Illinois Extension is working to increase compost- ing across the city and state, the team seeks to support underserved communities.

Initially Pumpkin Smash events and partnerships were prioritized in areas where more than one-third of residents live at 185% below the federal poverty level. As the project increased in scope, services were prioritized using the Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool. Some folks in these communities may never have heard of the term “composting”. Others are aware of it and believe in its value but may not have access to food scrap recycling services or a backyard in which to compost their own waste. Collection events provide a free service for communities, and education also focuses on alternatives to backyard bins such as vermicomposting and bokashi buckets. Language may also be a barrier in some communities, but “drop and swap” activities where residents can collect their scraps and receive finished compost are straightforward events that transcend language concerns. All types of communities benefit from the opportunity to dispose of their organic waste in a more environmentally sound way.

Photo: Sarah Farley, Illinois Extension

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