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Composting at Northwestern

quizDid you know that Northwestern composts food waste generated on campus? Read on to learn more about composting and how it works at Northwestern.

What is composting anyway?

A lot of what we throw away comes from the natural world, from banana peels to lawn clippings. Because these are made from organic materials, they are designed by nature to decompose. This releases the substances and nutrients they’re made up of, creating a rich, soil-like substance called compost that can be used as a super-fertilizer. By collecting these waste products through composting, we can facilitate and speed up this process on a commercial scale.

What’s the point of composting?

Imagine if every time you ate, you threw out almost half your plate. Half your coffee, half your pizza slice, half your holiday turkey. Just tossed in the trash.

That is essentially what food waste in the U.S. looks like today. Up to 40 percent of food in this country is wasted annually, thrown into landfills to rot. The lack of oxygen available in these trash piles means the decomposing food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent in its impact on climate change than the carbon dioxide released from burning coal, oil and gas. In fact, 20 percent of methane released by the U.S. comes from landfills.

So that’s sad. But here’s where compost comes in. When organic waste is composted, oxygen is available, meaning much less methane is released than if it was in a landfill. In 2014, only about one-fifth of U.S. food waste was recycled into compost or energy. Diverting more of that to compost could mean a whole lot less trash overall along with reduced methane emissions.

Composting is nature’s recycling system, ensuring that the nutrients in organic waste get back into the soil rather than being wasted in garbage dumps. This natural fertilizer is like Popeye’s spinach for plants, making them healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases. This means farmers can spray fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides. All of that’s good for us and the environment. We get more nutritious crops, we consume fewer poisons in our food, and fewer chemicals pollute the soil and water.

So who’s composting at Northwestern?

sustainNU established the food waste composting program in 2012, in partnership with Northwestern Dining. Since then, every Evanston campus dining hall, Norris, Kellogg Kafe and the Allen Center have been participating. Additionally, Northwestern complies with an Illinois state law that makes compost of landscaping waste mandatory. Food waste made up five percent of Northwestern’s total waste in 2016, and landscaping waste made up 10 percent, meaning a total of about 15 percent of our waste is composted.

The reason many of us don’t even realize this is happening is because most of it goes on behind the scenes, orchestrated by the dining staff. In kitchens, waste from food prep stations, leftovers scraped off plates in the dishwashing line, and prepared food that cannot be donated to Campus Kitchens are all collected for compost. Landscape waste is collected by Northwestern grounds crew. These materials are sent to compost facilities and added to commercial composting piles. Compost isn’t currently available through public bins around campus or in residence halls because we generally don’t generate enough waste in those places for it to be financially viable to pay for collection.

However, for students in off-campus residences, composting is available through Collective Resource, an Evanston-based compost pickup service that provides a compost bucket and a regular pickup at your home. Additionally, sustainNU can facilitate composting at large-scale events on campus. When planning an event, contact to discuss the options.

What’s the future of compost at Northwestern?

We’ve got all our dining halls and other food services covered when it comes to compost. The next step is to see where else we can expand. Northwestern will be conducting a waste audit over the course of the year to assess whether residence halls, Greek houses, offices, or even Ryan Field could be candidates for compost collections. One day, the dream is to totally close the waste loop by buying compost made from Northwestern’s own waste, says Julie Cahillane, sustainNU’s manager of sustainability and resource management.

“Composting is one of the fundamental ways that we can recycle,” Cahillane says. “Food waste nourishes the soil to grow more food. It’s the perfect closed loop system.”