The natural world has a system for everything, including a natural waste cycle that turns dead plants and trees into food and soil for other living things. It’s called composting, and it’s a system as old as the planet itself. But modern garbage services have traditionally lumped all disposed of items together and hauled them to landfills. In a private-public collaboration, Chicago is tackling this issue by building a model for city-wide composting that can be developed anywhere. 

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A street with a green truck parked.

The Andersonville Chamber of Commerce (ACC) has partnered with WasteNot Compost in a project called Clark Street Composts. The initiative is a pilot program the organizers hope will spread to every neighborhood. The program launched in mid-September with a focus on high producers of compostable waste such as restaurants, bars and other businesses. At the onset, the program has the support of 20 businesses with an interest in diverting compostable waste away from the dump and towards conversion into nutrient-rich soil.

Related: The Australian government unveils plan to end plastic pollution

A person in a face mask giving a talk on composting.

Andersonville has a history of embracing environmental and social change in Chicago’s north side, as seen through the Andersonville Recycles program, which launched in 2009. WasteNot is also well-established as an industry leader in composting, earning’s top rating for the best overall composting company in the U.S. However, even with these resources available, Chicago ranks last in the country in terms of recycling habits.

A person moving a trash bin.

According to a press release for Clark Street Composts, “food waste [is] estimated to make up over 50% of landfill contents, and 17% of greenhouse gasses produced in the U.S. are a product of food waste rotting in landfills,” so organizers are hoping to use the program to educate and encourage business owners in regards to composting. 

Two people in a kitchen putting items into a composting bin.

The process works like most other curbside services. WasteNot Compost provides bins and carts for members and informs customers about what items can go into the bin. This includes fruit and vegetable waste, but also lesser-known compostables like cooked and raw food, meat, dairy products, hair, pet fur, yard waste, compostable products from packaging companies and much more. Many of these items are not recommended for standard backyard composting because they can draw in unwanted animals, and temperatures often don’t get high enough to effectively break down materials as it does at an industrial level. 

A vibrant city street.

To provide information on the ins and outs of the program, WasteNot maintains an online membership where customers can find answers and support. The program also provides marketing materials for each business, so they can promote their environmental actions and help educate the public. ACC and WasteNot help promote the businesses to those looking to support environmentally-minded establishments. 

A green Clark Street Composts sign.

The process offered by Clark Street Composts has a multi-tiered effect. Not only does it lower emissions in the landfill and divert the amount of waste, but it also minimizes rodent problems in alleyways and smells in the city and at home. WasteNot operates a fleet of zero-emission electric trucks and offers a subscription service for both residents and businesses. It’s not a one-way street, though. Twice each year, WasteNot trucks haul nutrient-rich compost back to customers to enrich the soil. 

40th Ward Alderman Andre Vasquez praised the new initiative, commenting, “I think Clark Street Composts is a shining example of a community and partner such as the Chamber showing leadership that puts our planet first. It creates a model the rest of the city should look to so that we can be not only forward-thinking, but forward-acting!”

+ WasteNot

Photography by Jamie Kelter Davis