Composting in the city

By Ashley Badgley

Composting in Chicago may not seem relevant in the winter months, but it’s happening everywhere, according to several composting groups. Many people living in tiny apartments only have house plants to raise oxygen levels, but they can reuse their organic waste the same way a suburban household would.

Urban composting is a major focus for Chicago Home Composting, a University of Illinois extension program. The group consists of 40 Master Composters who run educational programs and give advice on how to compost in the city.

Ron Wolford, a Master Composter, believes teaching young students in Chicago about composting is the most effective way to get the message across.

“We do a lot of [composting] in Chicago Public Schools,” Wolford said. “Indoors, what we are trying to do is reach parents through their kids and get kids actually interested in it.”

For the past few years, the city of Chicago has been promoting composting by selling discounted compost bins at select events. These bins, called Earth Machines, are sold by the city at a subsidized price of $30. Each bin holds up to 80 gallons of waste and is recommended for outdoor use, making the bins unpractical for many high-rise dwellers.

For those looking to compost indoors, vermicomposting is an option. This method uses worms to move the soil around and break down organic materials into compost. It is often recommended for indoor use because there is no turning of the soil, whereas other methods of composting involve manual turning. But worms are insects and must be maintained properly and fed regularly if used indoors for

composting. Worms like to eat food scraps, but meats and oily foods should not be given to them. The environment must also be damp and dark.

The Chicago Conservation Corp., a volunteer program through the Chicago Department of the Environment, gives members the option of buying or making their own compost bins or running a project that promotes vermicomposting in the city.

Samantha Mattone, project coordinator of the Chicago Conservation Corp., promotes composting with worms and thinks it is the easiest way to compost in Chicago.

“I know that in an urban setting we find it more difficult to do outdoor composting because there are restrictions in having any land to do that sort of thing,” Mattone said.

If a compost pile gets a little big and starts overflowing, Mattone said it’s easiest to take it outside and place it under a tree.

“There is a lot of natural space in Chicago, so you can just put it around your nearest tree,” Mattone said. “It’s advised that you don’t ever dump the worms out into Chicago’s natural space because they are not native species.”

At the Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences, 3857 W. 111th St., students who make compost in the classroom have saved it and sold it to their friends and family as part of a fundraiser. Compost can also be saved in a plastic bag for a later time, Wolford said.

The city has a large number of community gardens where residents can learn about composting and participate in composting their own organic waste at the garden. In particular, the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave., is making the most of their garden.

Kirsten Akre, a floral culturalist who works at the organic greenhouse, said she is very particular about what can be composted because certain foods like meats, pastas and oils can disrupt the process. Most cooked and processed foods are not meant to be composted. One “perk” of being involved in the greenhouse is being able to compost at the site, she said.

“I have very strict ways of people donating,” Akre said. “I need to be really careful and controlled.”

Akre has a lot of composting already going on in the greenhouse and plans to double her capacity this year, she said. Building a rodent resistant three-bin composter system, buying a new compost tumbler, building one or two new bins for vermicomposting and an overall expansion of composting programs are all part of the plan to reuse the greenhouse’s massive amount of organic waste produced. The Master Composter program also helps Akre and her composting programs by providing tips and tools to city residents.

“[Master Composters] always bring their small, personal vermicomposting bins that they have at their own home,” Akre said. “They’re saying that this is what we do at our house and this is what you can do.”