A Guide to Composting in Chicago’s Concrete Jungle...

A Guide to Composting in Chicago’s Concrete Jungle

Composting in a concrete jungle is not an easy feat. Many might muster up an image of farmland when picturing this sustainable alternative to sending food waste to the landfill. The third floor of a brownstone is not necessarily prime real estate for this eco-friendly endeavor.

Chicago, unlike some large, urban governments, such as San Francisco and Seattle, does not have a city-wide composting program. For nearly 10 years, the city of San Francisco has been successfully diverting between 60 percent and 80 percent of its waste from the landfill. Meanwhile, in 2019, Chicago was buried at the bottom, diverting only about 7 percent of waste from the landfill. 

Less than 2 percent of communities in the United States have curbside, food waste pick-up, according to a 2019 publication from the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (USPIRG). As solid waste infrastructure is set up distinctly for landfills, this contributes substantially to the low waste-diversion rate of compost and recycling in the country, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council website. Waste diversion allows for recyclable or compostable waste that would otherwise arrive in a landfill to be redirected to carbon-friendly disposal sites, like recycling centers or compost facilities. This lowers carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

There is good news, however. As of 2019, the number of communities offering composting programs had grown by 65 percent, according to USPIRG, and a study done at the University of Illinois found that “incorporating community and backyard compost has the potential to divert a quarter of generated household food waste in a city.” Though the City of Chicago does not currently offer a universal option for residents, there are a few options to voluntarily divert some of their own household waste from the landfill. 


Various organizations and companies have compost drop-off locations scattered throughout the city. After either purchasing a five-gallon bucket from the company or picking up a bucket and filling it with food waste, households are invited to exchange it for an empty one on scheduled days. Exchanging buckets typically comes at a small fee. Here are a few programs that offer drop-off services:

Urban Canopy – Pick up an empty five-gallon bucket from a participating market for $5, fill it and exchange it for an empty bucket for five dollars. Founded in 2011, Urban Canopy utilizes local farmers markets to provide various drop-off locations, including the Lincoln Square Market, 61st Street Farmers Market, Glenwood Sunday Market and Beverly Farmers Market. Check Urban Canopy’s website for market dates.

Green City Market – This nonprofit recently celebrated 19 years of focusing on sustainable, local farming. It provides a drop-off composting program that feeds that mission. For a $5 fee, Chicagoans can drop up to five gallons of compost at the Lincoln Park or West Loop locations. 

Pick Up

There are also programs that offer services that pick up compost from homes, similar to garbage and recycling collections, at a service fee. After receiving a bucket, fill it with food waste and an organization will pick it up from your doorstep weekly, biweekly, or monthly, depending on your chosen subscription.

Collective Resource Compost – This organization services over 60 communities, including Chicago’s North Side, near South and Southwest Side neighborhoods and the suburbs north to Lake Bluff and extending west to Addison, Schaumburg, Arlington Heights and Buffalo Grove. Collective Resource Compost has the following pick-up options: weekly for $10.50, biweekly for $15.50 and monthly for $20.50.

Healthy Soil Compost, LLC – In much of the city of Chicago, Healthy Soil Compost will collect food waste weekly for $40, biweekly for $30 or monthly for $20. It was established in 2015 and has since “been working to develop a community connected solution to food-waste and seasonal organic waste items going to a landfill,” as stated on its website.

Urban Canopy – In addition to hosting drop-off locations, Urban Canopy will also collect food waste with curb-side pick-up; weekly for $35, biweekly for $25 and monthly for $15. 


A Proposed DePaul Program

DePaul sophomore and environmental studies major Lily Norman is hoping to advance composting options for the DePaul community. On May 3, Norman met with DePaul Housing to propose a universal composting plan for students, faculty and staff at the university.

“I wanted there to be a program that’s free … because right now in the city, it’s $15 to $20 a month to get a compost program,” said Norman. “And some people just can’t afford that.”

Her hope is that come winter of 2022, a pilot program will be set in motion. After interested participants sign up, her goal is to implement a workshop, which will earn individuals a compost bucket. Students, faculty and staff would be invited to participate, regardless of where they reside. Each week, there will be a central collection point and those scraps will be added to the compost already collected by Chartwells at DePaul Dining Services. 

Loyola University Chicago has a program similar to the one Norman has proposed, which began in 2013, and mostly centers on food waste generated by students and staff in dining halls. Through the program, students and faculty are able to receive a  one-gallon bucket to keep in their dorm rooms or offices for food scraps, and drop off the bucket at a variety of locations on campus. In its first year, the program composted 1,780 pounds of food scraps, and annually, it has successfully diverted 150 to 200 tons of organic waste from the landfill, or nearly 20 percent of waste at their main campus in Rogers Park. Though no official decision has been made by DePaul to move forward with this initiative, Norman is hopeful for the future of compost accessibility at DePaul.

“It just makes sense,” said Norman. “To put the things that came from the earth, back into the earth, but not a landfill.”


Header illustration by Yusra Shah