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Building a Culture of Composting

Nifa Author
Margaret Lawrence, Writer-Editor

Illinois grows more pumpkins than any other state, and University of Illinois Extension professionals are using the fall favorite to build awareness of the importance of composting in Cook County.

From 2020-2022, the Extension team hosted pumpkin smashes and food scrap collection events across Cook County drawing more than 2,600 people and diverting more than 46 tons of organic material from the county’s waste stream.

“For the third year, we encouraged people to smash their pumpkins, rather than trash them,” said Kathryn Pereira, Extension educator specializing in local food systems and small farms.  

“These fun, family-oriented events are helping us connect again with people after the pandemic reduced our ability to work with people in face-to-face settings,” she said. “An Extension Foundation New Technologies for Ag Extension Program (NTAE) incubator grant provided seed money to kick off our project.”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funds NTAE and works in a partnership with Oklahoma State University and the Extension Foundation to provide support to grant recipients.

Pereira and her colleague Sue Gasper emphasize the high visibility pumpkin smashes are just one element of a larger project addressing composting and food waste.

The Cook County team was recently awarded an NTAE expansion grant of $60,000 to support their Building a Culture of Composting in Greater Chicagoland project.

“We feel like composting is where recycling was 30 years ago,” said Gasper, an Extension STEM educator. “We want to create a culture of composting in the Chicago area. We want composting to become a habit—keeping organic material out of the regular waste stream.”

In 2021 and 2022 combined, the team held eight community compost collection days and 10 Pumpkin Smash events.  In 2022, the City of Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation became a vitally important partner, handling the hauling logistics for the pumpkin smashes.

“The city wants to bring compost services to people, and they see the smashes as a way of engaging people,” Gasper said.

This year, they piloted a Compost Ambassador training.

“Years ago, we had a Master Composter program, but like Master Gardeners it had a volunteer component,” said Gasper. “We rebranded the program as Compost Ambassador which does not have a volunteer element which we hope will help us reach more people. The new course includes four virtual sessions and an optional in-person session to get hands-on experience building a compost pile.” 

The Ambassador course covers compost basics, compost quality and use, and municipal composting.

Pereira said a spring forum will be the next major outreach effort of the project.

“The forum will target people working with composting whether they are government officials, educators or people providing composting services,” Gasper said. “Everyone has different perspectives, and we want to discuss strategies and develop actions plans. We are working to get people to buy in sooner rather than later.”

Home composting in an urban environment can be challenging for a number of reasons, including limited space and health regulations related to vermin control.

“One of the things we have done is to educate the public as well as local governments on alternative composting methods and techniques,” said Pereira. “The challenge of urban composting is why Compost Ambassador includes a section on community and municipal composting where you can subscribe to service. Essentially, you leave out your scraps for collection and get compost in return.”

One facet of the expanded project will focus on working with townships and municipalities that are committed to starting those services as well as advocate for policy changes. The expansion seed money is also helping the team pilot food waste audits with small-food businesses in underserved areas to assist and support them in becoming more environmentally friendly. The hope is the pilot will allow the team to provide a clear model for small businesses to implement climate-friendly food waste practices.

On the individual level, the project will concentrate on educating the public that food waste does not belong in the garbage and helping them succeed so they remain committed to composting.

This project will help Cook County reach its goal of decreasing carbon emissions due to waste by 50% by 2035.  Since Cook County is home to about 40% of the state’s total population, success there will serve as a springboard for expanding the composting culture to the rest of the state. 

Top image: Close up on pumpkin in a pumpkin patch. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock. 

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