Seven Generations Ahead and Chicago Public Schools successfully wrapped up a five-school commercial composting pilot program called “CPS Composts: Don’t Throw Me Away!” this spring.

CPScompostsMcAuliffe Elementary School Sorting Relay Race March 2015

Five schools signed on to implement systems to compost food scraps from kitchens and cafeterias and to recycle in these areas as well. By signed on, what we really mean is that these schools jumped in with enthusiasm, learned about and shared best practices, and went above and beyond to help CPS be more sustainable and to teach students to be environmental stewards.  We call these students Zero Waste Ambassadors as they learn to make good environmental choices, recover resources and help teach others about reducing waste. 

Operational changes were paired with student and teacher training to make curriculum connections. From Earth Day assemblies to all-school sorting relay races, from classroom presentations to creative dumpster sign making, from hands-on teacher training to lunchroom waste assessments, SGA’s CPS Composts: Don’t Throw Me Away! program made a big difference.

How big was the difference?  

  • 17 elephants big.  What we learned is that these five schools alone, in one school year, have the potential to keep 17 elephants’ worth of resources out of the landfill.  That is over 17,000 pounds of recycling, compost and liquids no longer being discarded!
  • 2,400 students big.  More than 2,400 students from these five pilot schools learned about and participated in recycling and composting efforts.
  • 400,000 milk cartons big.  We learned that in one school year, these five schools can potentially recycle 400,000 milk cartons!

Have you heard the news?  CPS is switching to compostable plates in the fall — no more polystyrene trays. This is big news and leads to the next big challenge of getting a system in place to compost those trays. 

As Illinois develops infrastructure and policies supporting food scrap composting, we are not yet far enough along for composting to be as affordable as sending waste to a landfill.  Until this happens, commercial composting will need to be small scale at CPS and supported through outside funding. On the bright side, this gives us an excellent opportunity to plan for the day when composting is financially viable — to determine equipment needs, design systems that are efficient and effective, teach students and teachers and more.

Our next step is to seek funding to support continuation of this pilot at the five schools while expanding to five additional schools for the 2015-16 school year. If you would like to support CPS Composts: Don’t Throw Me Away! or any of our other zero waste work, please consider donating either time or treasure.  For volunteer and internship opportunities, please send your resume here.  To donate, please click here.

For more information on our zero waste work, please email .

—Jen Nelson