Next Big Thing in Waste Management: Food Scrap Composting, Anaerobic Digestion

Next Big Thing in Waste Management: Food Scrap Composting, Anaerobic Digestion

  • This is the third of a five-part series on Kane County’s recently updated Solid Waste Management and Resource Recovery Plan, which includes 20 recommendations for Kane County’s future waste disposal. The articles are written by Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland.

A mass of dirty, filthy dishes with food scraps waiting to be washed.

Overripe fruit, black banana peels, stale bread, egg shells, coffee grounds, moldy vegetables.


This is the stuff that may be unpleasant in your garbage bag, but it’s also the stuff that will help make our environment a lot more pleasant if we can develop a smart way to process it. Food scraps return nutrients to our much-depleted soil, make our gardens grow bigger and better, and may well make money for Kane County someday if we can divert it into energy.

Food scraps, including the delightful assortment listed above, are the next big target for waste reduction — nationally, internationally and right here in Kane County. Food scraps originate from residential, commercial and institutional sources and are largely going into landfills, where the nutrients are wasted rather than returned to our topsoil.

And even worse is that as the food decomposes in a landfill, it produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas more potent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, which (if not captured, as we do in Kane County) significantly contributes to climate destabilization.

Kane County’s five-year Solid Waste Management and Resource Recovery Plan offers three recommendations concerning Organics Recycling: promoting food-scrap separation and collection from commercial sources that have the highest volume, monitoring residential pilot programs with aim to design a program for Kane County, and continuing to work with the state food-scrap coalition to advance food-scrap diversion in the region.

All of that might sound like recycling geek speak and technical mumbo jumbo, but the truth is that there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes planning happening and a lot that you can do right now to make an impact.

Hard Truth: We’re Wasting Resources

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 11.01.46 AMOrganic materials like food scraps and yard waste are highly recyclable and are a valuable resource, yet they are the single largest component of municipal solid waste that enters landfills and incinerators across the United States. After recovery through recycling and composting, 164 million tons of MSW were still discarded into landfills in 2012. In the same year, food scraps accounted for 14.5 percent of total MSW generated in the United States, the largest component of discards.1

Nearly 30 percent of what goes into the landfill is organic material that could be returned to soils to replenish many sorely needed nutrients. In Illinois, food scraps comprise 13 percent of landfilled solid waste.2

But lucky for us, yard waste was banned from landfills in 1990, which led to the development of infrastructure that is presently composting more than 500,000 tons of organic waste in Illinois each year.3

Why and How Residents Can Compost

There are a lot of good reasons to divert this material from landfills — to increase landfill capacity, reduce methane emissions and to recover valuable resources for composting, which returns nutrients to the soil, or anaerobic digestion, which produces energy in addition to compost.

As a best practice, many people are composting yard waste and food scraps in back yards. I do! If you are not yet composting at home and have an interest and the space to do it, please give it a try!

Kane County Board member Don Ishmael and his daughters, Faith (13) and Ziva (4), enjoy composting in their back yard.
Kane County Board member Don Ishmael and his daughters, Faith (13) and Ziva (4), enjoy composting in their back yard.

Making compost is easy. You can start with just leaves and grass, then work your way toward composting your food scraps. See this great online Backyard Composting Guide produced by the EPA for a simple how-to explanation.

Kane County provides affordable Soil Saver Compost bins at the subsidized price of $60 each, at the University of Illinois Extension Office at 535 S. Randall Road in St. Charles (630-584-6166). These bins are made from 100 percent recycled plastic, last for more than 20 years, have a lock-down top for wind and critters, and are easy to use due to the square open top.

Adding compost to your garden can reduce or eliminate the need to buy chemical fertilizers or compost. If you pay for yard waste collection bags or stickers, composting will cut your costs.

There are presently about 200 communities with curbside collection of food scraps in the U.S., representing 2.74 million households in 19 states.4 In these programs, the resident has a separate cart for the collection of organic materials, in addition to the recycling and trash carts. Oak Park is a great local example of a successful voluntary curbside residential food-scrap program.

Kane County will continue to monitor that program and any other pilot programs in the region in order to learn from successes, and/or setbacks in advance of instituting residential programs in Kane County.

Commercial and Institutional Composting

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 11.52.02 AMWhile there are a growing number of municipal residential food-scrap collection programs across the U.S. many regions are initially focusing on large-volume commercial sources for this material. Businesses (larger food scrap producers like groceries and restaurants) are a logical place to start to build the infrastructure for a voluntary program because of the volume they produce.

Kane County plans to develop avenues of outreach to commercial food service establishments in order to encourage separation and collection of food scraps for composting or anaerobic digestion and make connections between businesses and haulers. It is also important to remember that if you are a food service company then you should make sure that you have the right food services gloves that people wear when they are handling the food.

Click this links to see the map of locations in Kane County that are composting. These locations are mainly Jewel-Osco stores. If you know of additional locations that are composting food scraps, please let me know. DuPage County has achieved great success by concentrating on that sector to draw the largest volume of food scrap into the program and to increase route density for the haulers.

Future of Composting in Illinois

In 2012, the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition was formed of Illinois county recycling program coordinators and other stakeholders to advance food scrap composting, focusing first on the commercial sector where the bulk of the volume is generated. As the Kane County recycling coordinator, I am an active member of IFSC, working to advance state and regional developments that will ultimately benefit Kane County as the infrastructure grows.

The coalition is working to create networks between generators, haulers and processors, while also working on commercial business education and outreach, and advancing end-markets for the finished compost. Residential composting will be a future step, once infrastructure is established to a level that will make it more affordable.


1 USEPA report Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012

2 2009 Illinois Commodity/Waste Generation and Characterization Study

3 2013 Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Permitted Landscape Waste Compost Facilities annual report submitted in 2014

4 BioCycle Magazine’s 2014 Nationwide Survey on Residential Food Waste Collection in the U.S.

Please feel free to call Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland at 630-208-3841 or with any questions. More information can be found on the Kane County Recycles webpages and at these direct links to Kane County pages on food scraps and yard waste.

Solid Waste Plan Series