On an ordinary afternoon at Kaufman Dining Hall at North Central College in Naperville, hundreds of students will do something quietly extraordinary: They'll scrape uneaten food into a separate container before placing their plates on a conveyor belt to be washed.
That's an essential step in composting -- and it's a ritual all incoming freshmen learned last fall.
"I think it's a really good idea. People eat and don't finish it," said Mustapha Olaoye, a junior from South Holland who said he'd "absolutely" compost after college if he moved to an area that provided it.
He won't have to wait too long.
Across the suburbs, food scrap composting is taking hold at institutions and households that want to go beyond recycling. Composting diverts more material from landfills and lengthens their life spans. It also helps reduce greenhouse gases and cuts waste hauling costs. Further, the process recovers more nutrients than sending scraps down the garbage disposal, experts say.
Karen Rozmus, who oversees a pilot residential food scrap composting program in Oak Park, said about composting, "It's like where recycling was 20 years ago."
We all help compost
Suburbanites already compost when they put out yard waste, lawn clippings and branches in those large paper bags with the rest of their weekly trash pickup, said Marta Keane, president of the Illinois Recycling Association.
"Composting has always been part of recycling," Keane said, noting the yard waste is composted at a separate facility.
Another form of composting is done in backyards with such items as fruit peels, coffee grounds, egg shells and other organic matter mixed into an earth stew that eventually becomes fertilizer for garden beds. In fact, that's the final result of the food scrap saving at North Central: Fertilizer is returned to the campus for flower beds.
Commercial food scrap composting goes a step further because it can accommodate uneaten meat, bones, paper towels, cheese, dairy products, oil-based sauces and other items that won't break down in a typical backyard compost.
The food scraps are hauled to a facility where they're combined with yard waste, and the mixture naturally decomposes into nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Composting is mainstream in some U.S. cities, but relatively new to Illinois.
Food scraps "are not a hazard in the landfill, but they are a waste because of all the nutrients we're losing," Keane said, noting that composting "closes the loop."
Oak Park began a pilot program in April 2012 allowing residents to mix food scraps into their yard waste and brush containers.
The items do not have to be separated and are picked up once a week with other trash; some residents even share the compost containers.
Rozmus, Oak Park's environmental services manager, said the program started with 110 households but has now grown to more than 600 homes, including five churches, nine schools, a farmers market and a food pantry.
The program is close to cost-neutral for participants, who must pay a monthly fee for a compost container for food scraps and yard waste but are exempt from buying the special stickers to put on bags for yard waste removal, Rozmus said.
Officials estimate each household generates about 20 pounds of food scraps per week, which is 20 pounds not going into the landfill to create methane gas.
Oak Park trustees gave its program a thumbs-up for another year; Rozmus feels the program is now permanent.
"We sign up about 10 new people a week. The village board has been very supportive," Rozmus said. "We do a pretty good job recycling, but we've hit a plateau. The waste stream is the waste stream. People live how they live. (Composting) is a true behavior change."
The villages of Gurnee and Grayslake are making composting an option for businesses and residents.
Grayslake's new seven-year commercial waste hauling contract, which takes effect next year, gives businesses the option to participate in food scrap composting, Assistant Village Manager Kevin Timony said, noting the village is "exploring options" for a residential program, Timony said.
Gurnee trustees in April approved a similar seven-year contract that likewise gives businesses the option of composting their food scraps with yard waste. The program begins on Aug. 1, 2015, said Erik Jensen, assistant to the village manager.
Last month, the village also signed a five-year contract for residential waste hauling that provides an option to mix food scraps into yard waste that is collected weekly -- provided Waste Management can find a nearby facility to accept the food scraps. No start date has been determined.
"Our own facilities are too far away," said Lisa Disbrow, spokeswoman for Waste Management of Illinois. "We're in the process of identifying a third-party compost facility that can accept food waste."
Jensen hopes people see the value in composting and drive the program forward.
"We've gotten pretty good at recycling, but to compost is the way to really amp up diversion (from landfills)," he said. "Recycling has reached a plateau in some ways when it comes to diversion, and composting will be the next thing to increase diversion rates."
Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik said community members want the village to take the first step with initiatives such as composting.
"One of the things I consistently hear from my residents and my business community is they'd like the village to take the lead on green initiatives and provide them with more options on becoming greener," she said. "This is part of that plan."
60 percent diversion
Efforts by Grayslake and Gurnee contribute to a goal by the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County to divert 60 percent of all residential waste from landfills by 2020.
Peter Adrian, the agency's recycling coordinator, said the county is hovering at about 40 percent; composting can help boost that number.
"This idea of organics collection is kind of like what recycling was 15 years ago," Adrian said. "It's a big behavior change. It might be more monumental than recycling was."
Keane and other recycling experts say that in addition to saving nutrients, composting also uses less water and energy than managing organic matter at wastewater treatment facilities.
"We can't afford to waste the water," said Kay McKeen, founder and executive director of the Wheaton-based SCARCE, or School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education.
Disbrow said the number of composting customers and businesses, such as Whole Foods, is growing. In 2011, Waste Management had one compost collection route, and now it has five, she said.
Another area school to initiate food scrap composting is Lewis University.
Jaclyn Boyle, facilities coordinator for sustainability, is a 2013 graduate of North Central and used her experience there to help implement the program at Lewis.
"It is the next frontier if we're serious about reducing the waste we generate," she said.
Brittany Graham, sustainability coordinator at North Central, said getting students to compost now will help them later in life.
"As they go on in their lives, it won't be a new concept for them," she said. "There's all these nutrients in the food scraps. Why would you waste it by putting it in the landfill?"