Composting: Why it’s easy and why it matters

November 2, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Photo courtesy Andersonville Development Corporation/The Urban Canopy

Photo courtesy Andersonville Development Corporation/The Urban Canopy

For some city-dwellers, composting may seem like something reserved for agrarian utopias. Though it has been around for ages – some say it has origins in ancient Mesopotamia, Rome and Greece – in recent times, communities have been slower to realize its environmental importance.


Part of why this concept may seem far-fetched to Chicagoans is that we have no citywide composting program. Seattle – unsurprisingly – fines residents and businesses that have more than 10 percent food waste or recyclables in their garbage. But this concept has also been embraced on the East Coast. The NYC Compost Project allows residents to purchase one of a selection of sanctioned compost bins that can be dropped off at sites throughout the city.

That being said, changes to city and state laws in recent years have given Chicago-area residents and businesses more options for pursuing composting on their own. The changes have also given rise to composting via local urban farming programs and community gardens.

Although Chicago may not have citywide composting, some suburbs – such as Oak Park, Evanston and Naperville – have seasonal or year-round composting programs that residents can enroll in.


As part of its eco-Andersonville program, the Andersonville Development Corporation has partnered with The Urban Canopy, offering composting to residents and businesses. The program began in February 2014.

“We’re trying to create a network of small-scale composting all over Chicago where these scraps go back into food production in some way,” said Alex Poltorak, founder of the Urban Canopy, an urban agricultural organization. “We have our farm in Englewood, another in Bronzeville and some school and community gardens to execute composting year-round.”

Poltorak said Andersonville’s program – which started with between 60 and 70 members – now has 150.

“We’ve enrolled even more households. The program is still expanding,” said Michael Ashkenasi, director of sustainability programs, Andersonville Development Corporation.

Poltorak said changes to city/state zoning and reclassification of food waste were also necessary, as food scraps were formerly considered toxic waste. Poltorak said these changes have encouraged many collection services to emerge who may have otherwise been hesitant to violate city and state laws.

“Places come out of the woodwork now that there is less risk involved with this,” he said.

In fact, The Urban Canopy collaborates with Nature’s Little Recyclers, a red worm farm in the city’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Worms feed on compost material, recycling it into chemical-free castings that can be reused as fertilizer.

Poltorak created The Urban Canopy after working on a fellowship with Chicago Public Schools.

“It was the first time I learned that a lot of kids get their only meal of the day at school. A lot of kids aren’t graduating high school and I thought that food was one of those issues,” he said. “You can’t often reach a kid that’s struggling with food security. I really wanted to fight that.”


Here’s a breakdown of Chicago’s composting laws – minus the legal jargon.

-WHAT CAN I COMPOST? Organic waste! Those leftovers in your fridge that you didn’t get to. Landscape clippings. This does NOT include utensils, packaging or containers from food. Feed those to your recycle bin.

-WHAT DO I PUT IT IN? Compost material – which cannot exceed 5 cubic yards – must be stored in a fully-closed container with air holes no larger than 1/4 of an inch. This is important, as strong odors can attract furry neighbors – and annoy your human ones. If you want to compost a larger amount, fill out an application with the city.

The city also requires special permitting for: meat, bones, fish, dairy products, grease, grains and legumes. Obviously – don’t put sewage and/or hazardous waste in there.

There are a variety of containers you can use – check out Melissa Graham’s Local Beet post with some great options – and they can be as simple or technologically advanced as you please, so long as they adhere to the city’s specifications. If you choose to go through a retrieval service, check if they provide you with a container.

-MAINTENANCE: Don’t let it sit in water (that can get gross). But make sure to mix the materials to maintain a moisture level of 40-60 percent. Here’s how the city measures that.

-WHAT IF I’M A BUSINESS? Commercial composting in Chicago requires permitting. Read more here.

Regardless of whether you compost via a collection service or on your own, composting is a small and attainable change humans can make to their waste disposal habits that could help preserve the well-being of our planet. The process not only diverts waste from landfills, but produces nutrient-rich fertilizer for regrowth.

The Urban Canopy:
City Farm:
Collective Resource:
Green City Market:
Illinois Food Scrap Coalition:
University of Illinois Extension:


One Comment

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