Food scrap collection services growing, but not in all suburbs

Food makes up the single largest waste stream in Illinois — 20% of the 19 million tons of waste we send to the landfill each year — but just 50 communities had access to food scrap collection through their local government as of June 2023.

While that number may seem small, it’s a leap forward from the single town that had access back in 2014: Oak Park piloted residential food scraps collection in 2012 and expanded the project citywide in 2013 as a subscription service, organics recycling advocacy magazine BioCycle reported.

Whether it’s through curbside collection or residential drop-off, the number of communities with access to food waste collection programs continues to grow today. Towns have pursued a variety of avenues to get their food out of the landfill, such as setting up drop-off locations, combining food and yard waste through their current haulers and contracting with local composting haulers that have cropped up in recent years.

Lake County municipalities in particular have found success with the ride-along model, with 25 towns currently providing food scrap collection access through a limited but affordable effort. Homeowners in those towns can throw their food scraps in with yard waste during the eight-month yard waste season, but they lose service during the winter months.

“That's a real low-cost way to bring food scraps in for most of the year because typically we're able to get the food waste put into the contract without having to pay extra. That was kind of key to getting over the barrier,” said Walter Willis, executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County.

Willis, who helps most of Lake County’s towns negotiate their hauling contracts, said he’s made a concerted effort to include food scrap collection whenever possible.

That’s because when food scraps decompose in the oxygen-free environment of a landfill, they can’t properly decompose as they would in a natural environment. Instead, they produce significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that holds 25 times more warming power than carbon dioxide.

“Landfills are the third largest source of man-made methane after the oil and gas industry and the animal industry,” Willis said. “If we got the food waste out, then the amount of methane would go down, so it's a climate change issue in that regard. Also in our regard, it's a higher and better use to take food waste, commingle with yard waste and make a product like compost, which we're trying to develop more and more markets for. It's a great soil amendment — and it's much better than putting something in a tomb and waiting for it to rot.”

Willis added that for the Solid Waste Agency, compost is “the next frontier” of waste diversion.

“We're kind of stuck at our 40% recycling level, which is curbside recycling,” he said. “If we start to do the organics, that's when we can really divert more material from the landfill than what we bring to the landfill — because right now, more than half of what we generate goes to landfills.”

Like Oak Park, several suburbs have gone one step further than ride-along services, offering a subscription composting program that allows residents to compost year-round.

But while Oak Park’s compost service is with its regular trash and recycling hauler, some towns partner with local composting haulers. For instance, Hoffman Estates offers subscription through Evanston-based Collective Resource Compost Cooperative and Morton Grove through Chicago-based WasteNot.

Meanwhile, some suburbs have gone all-in by providing a third composting cart for all their residents year-round. For instance, Highland Park began offering a third LRS cart in August for all single-family residents, specifically for disposal of yard waste and food scraps.

When it comes to growing composting, “municipal approval is very important,” said WasteNot founder and CEO Liam Donnelly.

“I think the growth in the suburbs is just getting started. It's really encouraging to me to see suburban municipalities considering adding composting as a standard offering, but even on the opt-in level, those municipalities are doing it in a way that's going to promote wide adoption. It's difficult to add composting for a lot of municipalities because there's a lot of preconceived misconceptions,” Donnelly said. “When we have a municipality promoting composting and negotiating on residents’ behalf for also good prices, it makes composting more popular.”

Erlene Howard, who founded Collective Resource Compost Cooperative in 2010, added there has long been “a huge need” for composting.

“I'm grateful that more people are catching on,” she said. “We definitely do the heavy lifting, delivering the clean container each time and getting it to the compost site. The big conversation around compost is the yuck factor, and we just constantly are reminding people that it's not as yucky as climate change.”

While food scrap collection has grown drastically over the last decade, many towns lack the service.

Seventeen of DuPage County’s 38 communities offer residential curbside collection. In Kane County, just six communities explicitly offer ride-along services during yard waste season, including Elgin and Batavia.

And while Chicago launched its first citywide food scrap drop-off program in October, the city is lagging behind its national counterparts: Los Angeles began requiring single-family households to compost their food scraps in 2023 while New York City’s mandatory composting program is in full swing in two boroughs and is expected to reach all residents by 2025.

One major obstacle to growing collection programs is not selling enough compost, Willis said. Market development opportunities range from small-scale use in home gardens to big users like roadway projects and farmland.

To increase interest at home, Willis’ agency is hosting 10 compost giveaways for International Compost Awareness Week, which runs through Sunday.

“We believe this is very important so (residents will) see this circular economy,” Willis said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I put food waste out on curb, it goes to a local compost site out near Island Lake called Midwest Organics Recycling, and they're now bringing it back to the community in the form of compost.”

Another barrier is Illinois’ permitting requirements.

For composting facilities that accept and process yard waste, these sites can accept a maximum of 10% non-yard waste compostable material at any given time, Kane County’s recycling coordinator Clair Ryan said in an email.

As a result, haulers that allow intermixing of food scraps with yard waste like LRS and Flood Brothers don’t tend to advertise that fact, Ryan said.

“If relatively few people participate, it reduces the likelihood that local compost facilities will reject loads due to an over-abundance of food scrap or contamination with non-compostables like packaging,” she said. “However, having it be this way does little to help us move the needle on compostable food going to landfills and generating methane.”

Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, added that for small- to mid-sized businesses that do primarily compost food scraps, obtaining the permit is an expensive process.

“The permit is too much and isn't affordable for those type of sites,” Walling said. “Creating tiers based on where (the site) is located, what material is being brought in, and how it's being composted is a really important next step that I would love to see rulemaking on in the future.”

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

Justin Hunger, a compost service specialist with Collective Resource Compost Cooperative, swaps out filled compost bins with freshly sanitized containers on his residential pickup route. Courtesy of Collective Resource Compost Cooperative
A container used for food scrap recycling. Courtesy of Collective Resource Compost Cooperative
Midwest Organics near Wauconda uses a machine to rotate the compost during the process of recycling food scraps. Daily Herald file
Towns have pursued a variety of avenues to get their food out of landfills like WM’s Countryside Landfill in Grayslake. Daily Herald File Photo
WasteNot, a Chicago-based compost collection service, has expanded into a handful of suburbs like Morton Grove, Lake Forest and Glencoe since its 2015 inception. Courtesy of WasteNot
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