(Photo by Hannah Richter/ University of Chicago)
Composting: Turning college kids’ trash into environmental treasure
At the end of a checkered-carpet hallway in Chicago stands an unassuming door. Taped to the front is a piece of printer paper proclaiming “PLEASE BREAK DOWN BOXES FOR RECYCLING.” A step inside reveals two 20-gallon gray bins filled to the brim with granola bar wrappers, coffee cups, and orange peels: the day-old trash of dozens of college dormitory residents. The blue recycling bins overflow with the broken-down cardboard left over from Amazon deliveries (and the success of the door’s all-caps notice). At the end of each day, bulging trash bags will be loaded onto a cart, pushed by an overworked janitor to a larger basement trash room, and driven by Lakeshore Recycling Systems to a landfill in Atkinson, Illinois. Years later, the trash will still be there.
The importance of waste management has been known since early humans realized living next to excrement was a recipe for disease. Today’s waste systems are built on roughly the same principle as those of ancient civilizations: throw stuff out farther away.
In America’s waste systems it matters surprisingly little what the trash itself is; bubble wrap and apple cores are treated as one and the same. Workers in offices, parents in homes, and students in dormitories all apply the “throw stuff out farther away” principle – and it’s contributing to climate change.
Carbon emissions contributing to Earth’s greenhouse come from numerous sources, among which landfills are no minor player. Landfills release 17% of the U.S.’s methane, a greenhouse gas with 28-36x the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency . Though methane stays in the atmosphere for a shorter timespan than carbon dioxide, it absorbs more energy (holds more heat) in those years.
Our discarded leftovers generate those Earth-warming gases.
“Rotting food in landfills releases methane,” explains University of Chicago Campus Composting co-leader Chloe Brettmann. The reason has to do with oxygen: the soil microorganisms that break down food need oxygen to survive, and landfills are packed too tightly for sufficient air flow. Without microorganisms, food decays much slower – releasing methane and carbon dioxide.
The solution? Give waste room to breathe.
Composting does just that. Biodegradable waste, like food, paper products, and even dog hair can all be combined and routinely turned through to oxygenate. In as soon as a few weeks the waste bears distant resemblance to its original form. In place of the banana peels and paper napkins is fertile, nutrient-rich soil.
Conceptually, composting is simple. In practice, it’s an extra step that few Americans take.
The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 30% of Americans’ food gets thrown out, 96% of which ends up in landfills – amounting to 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere each year . “When you compost, you dramatically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by food breaking down,” says Brettman.
For many Americans, the time and resources needed to maintain a backyard compost bin makes it an unrealistic ask. Backyard composting is the smallest scale of operation, and the one that takes the most work. This is where local and regional composting companies come in: many offer a pick-up or drop-off service where individuals can fill up a few-gallon bin that gets exchanged regularly. But this still requires effort and money – work that you don’t do now for your trash and recycling.
To make a change of practice desirable, an environmental benefit is, unfortunately, rarely enough. Ease is crucial – and Chicago college campuses provide a case study into how the operation might work.
The University of Chicago is set to implement a residential composting pilot program in an 800-student dormitory in March 2022. Campus Composting, a group within the University of Chicago’s largest environmental club, initiated the pilot with $3,900 from the Green Fund, a campus program that awards $50,000 in annual grants for student-led sustainability research and projects .
For the first time in UChicago’s history, students will be able to bring their buckets, full of food, paper products, and other biodegradable waste, to a nearby drop-off location for Chicago-based micro-compost hauler Urban Canopy to pick it up. In COVID-times, when more students are eating meals in their dormitory rooms, composting provides a sustainable waste stream, helping to reduce individual and university carbon footprints.
Since composting is not a widespread service, educational measures are being put in place regarding composting etiquette – namely, what can and can’t be composted. Andre Dang, Campus Composting’s other co-leader, notes “Given that it’s an opt-in program, we are able to make sure everyone is following the rules of composting because we have educational seminars and materials.”
Education about composting can help in more ways than just proper waste sorting; a 2016 study by Waliczek and colleagues found that composting education bears a significant correlation with enhancing environmental attitudes more generally .
Other Chicago schools – including Loyola University Chicago, Northwestern, and DePaul – have been part of the composting scene for years. Loyola began their commercial composting initiative in 2012 and has since turned composting into one of its standard waste streams (along with the usual landfill, recycling, and e-waste).
Loyola’s Director of Sustainability Aaron Durnbaugh notes, “members of the community take ownership, and even pride, in diverting this material from the landfill.” To him, the top benefits of composting include “reducing materials going to the landfill, increasing recycling of organic waste into needed fertilizer and soil nutrients, and supporting a regional circular economy of nutrients and materials management.”
When waste management infrastructure is placed on an organization (in this case, a university), it becomes easier for individuals to change their behaviors. The goal with composting is, simply, to add another type of bin to the trash rooms at the end of dormitory hallways.
The environmental need for more sustainable waste management is vital. Says Brettman, “An enormous portion of the waste that you create individually is food waste…both on and off-campus composting programs could divert so much total waste output.”
 “Overview of Greenhouse Gases.” EPA, United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases.  “Food Loss and Food Waste.” FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, https://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/flw-data.  “Food Wastage: Key Facts and Figures.” FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/196402/icode/.  “Reducing Wasted Food Basics.” Washington State Recycling Association, Washington State Recycling Council, https://wsra.net/reduce-food-waste/.  “Green Fund.” Campus and Student Life | The University of Chicago, The University of Chicago, https://csl.uchicago.edu/life-on-campus/green-fund/.  Waliczek, Tina, et al. “The Relationship between a Campus Composting Program and Environmental Attitudes, Environmental Locus of Control, Compost Knowledge, and Compost Attitudes of College Students.” HortTechnology, vol. 26, no. 5, Oct. 2016, pp. 592–598., https://doi.org/10.21273/horttech03320-16.