Chicago Composting Initiative ‘Great First Step’ to Solving Food Waste



By Thaddeus Mast
Weslynne Ashton

Chicagoans send about 450,000 tons of wasted food to the landfill every year, and a new city push to make composting easier for residents is a new, if small, step to reducing food waste.

The city’s Food Scrap Drop-Off program offers 15 locations for people to toss their leftover food, potentially taking thousands of tons of scraps out of the dump. Weslynne Ashton, professor of environmental management and sustainability at Illinois Institute of Technology, has mixed feelings on the program’s effectiveness.

“I believe there is a large number of residents who will jump on this opportunity to have their food waste be disposed of in a more eco-effective way. However, I think the majority of residents are not going to use this system,” Ashton says.

Distance to drop-off sites, the “ick” factor of food waste, and clashing family priorities can deter people from participating in the program, Ashton says. But the program shows the city is interested in food waste.

“Chicago is well behind other major U.S. cities in managing wasted food. We need to think about this as a first step, not the long-term solution. This is something that ‘first movers,’ the more environmentally conscious residents, will do. This can build momentum and raise awareness about the issue and options for food-scrap recycling,” Ashton says.

Further city integration with existing food-focused organizations and the food industry should be a next step, such as the Institute of Design Food Systems Action Lab. Composting isn’t the only solution to food waste, Ashton says. Edible food must be prioritized for donation to people facing food insecurity.

“It is far too easy and cheap to dump or recycle surplus, edible food—time, food safety, and labor requirements constrain the ability of food providers to get food to people,” Ashton says.