Sustainability: Waste as a Resource

uncooked photography by Kevin Hartmann/ Sterling Bay

Welcome to another installment in our Sustainability series! This one is wordy, but we promise it’s worth it! In this week’s post, we wanted to touch on ways to reduce waste in our own lives, as well as a look into some businesses who have taken post-consumer waste into serious consideration! The amount of waste that arrives at the landfill can be minimized by two key practices: composting and recycling. However, before we run through the basics, we wanted to touch on why it’s so important to divert as much recyclable and biodegradable material as possible.

Landfills in the US: By size and current status

Landfills

Illinois produces an average of 19 million tons of garbage annually, a large percentage of which arrives at the landfill when it could have been recycled or composed. In fact 43% of the waste produced in Illinois is organic matter & food scrap. Our reliance on landfills as an effective end-of-use destination for the material we dispose of is inefficient for several reasons:

  1. Landfills have life expectancies. Meaning what we throw away does not disappear. It sits under the earth for decades, sometimes centuries, and when they are full we make new ones. Theoretically, we are on track to live on a planet stuffed with our own garbage.
  2. Landfills prevent decomposition. This means that all of our food waste, organic matter and those biodegradable kitchen trash bags you purchased, are not in the correct environment for healthy breakdown.
  3. Landfills release methane gases. Due to the high volume of organic matter disposed of at landfills, compounded by a lack of oxygen, an environment for anaerobic decomposition is created, a byproduct of which is methane gas. Methane, when released into the atmosphere, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Now is the part where we remind you that striving for zero waste is NOT a hopeless endeavor, nor is it about actually attaining perfection. This is about aspiring to be better, to toss one less bag of trash into the dumpster per week, then two less, then three! With enough effort, research and care, the hope is that we’ll challenge ourselves the way Geoff DeRuiter did when he strove for a year of low waste living and made it to 19 months, having produced only a bathroom trashcan’s worth of garbage! Now, with that twinkle in your eye rekindled, lets dive in to how we can make a difference!

Recycling

We willl just come right out and say it, recycling is an enigma. This is largely due to the fact that there are guidelines established at nearly every government level, from federal waste management regulations down to the county sorting facility, so it can take a little digging to understand how materials are recycled in your area and what you can and cannot toss into that blue bin! Here are some tips to up your recycling game:

  1. Know your plastics. When dealing with plastic waste, it’s not just about how to properly recycle each plastic type, it’s also important to know which numbers to avoid when you’re at the grocery store! #1 & #3 plastics are able to be recycled, however are composed of chemicals which make them toxic when reused, counterproductive, no? #6 plastics, a.k.a. Polystyrene (a.k.a. Styrofoam, a.k.a. avoid at all costs), is not widely recycled and has been linked to human health risks (especially when microwaved). Finally, #7 is a catch-all category for all other plastic types and is not intended for reuse, nor is it regulated with recycling guidelines.
  2. Test yourself! There are all sorts of fun recycling quizzes online to boost your knowledge base and make you a more efficient recycler.
  3. Invest in companies with likeminded goals! The Loop is dedicated to eliminating some of the need to recycle by shipping you products in reusable containers, when you’re done, you just send them back! Terracycle accepts all of those hard-to-recycle items that you’re not sure what to do with, like that garden gnome you didn’t realize you owned or the mountain of dried up markers in your junk drawer. Holiday LED’s will accept that strand of Christmas lights you purchased from the dollar store that never actually turned on!

The main point here is, when sending your waste to the landfill try to adopt a “last resort” mindset. The next time you’re standing in your kitchen, holding something you think can’t possibly belong anywhere other than the nearest dumpster, do a little digging of your own to see if there’s an alternate option!

un·cooked in partnership with Collective Resource Compost

Composting

To kick off this last segment, lets discuss the biggest deterrent for those considering composting: ODOR. The reality of a smelly trash can or a foul compost pile, is an over-abundance of nitrogen-rich matter (i.e. food scraps) decomposing in the open air – are we really surprised that it stinks? The key to a healthy, and fresh smelling, compost pile is finding the ideal balance of carbon-based (“brown”) and nitrogen-based (“green”) organic matter. Experts suggest a ratio of one-third green to two-thirds brown for best results. Whether you’re currently residing in a tower of concrete & steel, a walk up with than-ideal back “patio” or a homestead with ample yard space, it can be daunting to know where to begin! Rest assured, You don’t need a thriving wild landscape just outside your back door to successfully compost your food scraps! Use this article to evaluate how much space you have to devote to the project, what types of items you would typically be composting & a list of carbon-rich & nitrogen-rich material (remember that ideal balance thing with mentioned earlier?).

Now, for those of you who are absolutely LOVING this topic theoretically, but aren’t sure that you want to fully commit to it right now, fear not! Research compost drop-off points in your area! All you need to do is invest in some compostable bin liners, commit to collecting all of your organic food scraps, stick em’ in the freezer to stop decomposition and then when you’re ready to dispose, plan a visit to one of the following local drop-off sites: Zero Waste Chicago, Urban Canopy & Green City Market (just to name a few). Wherever you chose to dispose of your food scraps, be sure to research what each company does and does not compost! For example, citrus, meat & dairy require more advanced composting methods and are not accepted at all drop-off points!

un·cooked 

In conclusion, we’d like to focus in on a project that our office had the pleasure of working on this past year. Un·Cooked is a grab and go eatery located in Chicago’s West Loop. Their mission is to provide Chicagoans with a locally sourced, sustainably served, and 100% plant-based menu full of always fresh ingredients. Not only are they reducing waste by using plastic-free, recyclable & compostable to-go containers, they’ve also partnered with Collective Resource Compost to divert the majority of the organic waste and food scrap that their kitchen produces!  Along with making the world healthier, their other mission is to make you healthier through sharing the healing power of plants — you will be amazed at their delicious menu which will boost your energy and your immune system, something we all need in this pandemic era!

Like we said at the beginning of this series, sustainability is an ongoing conversation. There are always ways to improve and learn from our relationship with sustainable practices – both on a global scale as well as an individual one! So whether you’re dining out, taking it to-go, grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner, or tossing out that garden gnome you’ve been holding onto since…wait where did that come from? Look around for an opportunity to make a change and take a step towards a more sustainable lifestyle!