Andersonville is a neighborhood that's best known for its Swedish heritage, its Middle Eastern cuisine and its LGTBQ-friendly nightlife, which all played a part in Time Out's decision to name it second coolest neighborhood in the world earlier this year. But one other thing that stood out about the North Side community is its commitment to sustainability, from the native plants that populate the neighborhood's planters to a new composting program that helps local businesses send less waste to landfills.
"Andersonville has always been rooted in environmental initiative. We were one of the first neighborhoods to offer on-street recycling—as early as 2009," David Oakes, the director of business services for the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce said. He was the driving force behind the recent introduction of the Clark Street Composts pilot program, which enlists the services of WasteNot Compost (a service which Oakes uses at his own home) to help more than 20 local businesses divert food scraps, hair, paper products and other compostable waste from landfills.
Launched in mid-September, Clark Street Composts made a point of involving a variety of participating businesses, including restaurants like Gadabout and Lady Gregory, the Robert Jeffrey Hair Studio and the Open Space Early Learning Center. The Andersonville Chamber is footing the bill for WasteNot Compost's services for about a year, and according to Oakes, the Chamber plans on providing additional funding once the pilot ends, covering at least part of the cost of composting services so that more local businesses can afford to participate. It's similar to the way that the Chamber provides funds for litter abatement and snow removal, easing the financial burden on businesses within the neighborhood.
For WasteNot Compost founder Liam Donnelly, the pilot program offers a chance to realize his original vision for his zero-emissions composting company. The local entrepreneur conceived his business at the age of 15 and originally rode his bike with a trailer attached to collect compostable waste from his customers.
"When I first started nine years ago, in my mind it was going to be a commercial-only service. I knew that restaurants paid for their dumpsters, so it wouldn't be that foreign of a concept for them to pay to compost," Donnelly said. "Whereas for residential subscribers, I didn't see it becoming a business because you can compost on your own—it surprised me that there was such a residential demand [for composting]."
Today, WasteNot serves thousands of residential customers, and Donnelly is quick to acknowledge that the main barrier to businesses like restaurants and bars purchasing composting services is the cost. That's why the Clark Street Compost pilot program presents a unique opportunity for WasteNot to serve businesses that might not have enlisted its services otherwise, providing data on cost savings that can be shared with other potential clients.
"We probably would not have been able to afford this on our own, but since the Chamber is providing it we are very thrilled to be doing it," Gadabout owner and general manager James Bateman said.
According to Bateman, adapting to composting in his restaurant has been relatively simple. WasteNot provided 10-gallon buckets that are used to collect food scraps and other compostable items in the kitchen, which are then emptied into a 32-gallon bin that is collected and replaced by one of WasteNot's electric vehicles up to three times a week.
"With these businesses that are participating, we want to make sure that we take data along the way of how much trash they’re averting, but also in cost," Oakes said. "With less landfill material that’s going to compost, they’ll have to pay less in trash removal and probably see less rats. It’s those data points I want to show other folks that they can do this within their neighborhoods."
The data that WasteNot has collected after just six weeks of the pilot program is very encouraging, with 13,150 pounds of waste diverted from landfills among the 22 participating Andersonville businesses. At its current rate, the pilot project will divert at least 120,000 pounds of waste—using an EPA calculation, that equates to 81,840 pounds of CO2 emissions, or roughly the equivalent of the greenhouse gases created by eight cars during an average year.
Beyond the data, the pilot program is giving WasteNot a peek at the future, when a concentrated district of businesses composting might not be as much of an anomaly. Participating businesses are being encouraged to share their composting story with customers, potentially inspiring them to take advantage of WasteNot's residential services. Likewise, WasteNot is sharing details about participating businesses with its thousands of residential customers, some of whom are willing to go out of their way to support other composters.
"This allows us to see how this would work if composting was mainstream, which is the direction that it seems to be going." Donnelly said. "How many savings can we pass on to customers, how we can operate efficiently—as much as it’s a way to help the businesses participating, it is helping us."
In the coming months, the Andersonville Chamber hopes to add additional neighborhood businesses to the Clark Street Composts pilot, expanding the scope and impact of the project. The Chamber is also making plans to transition local businesses to providing compostable cutlery and takeout containers, installing public compost bins along Clark Street where folks enjoying a bowl of frozen yogurt from Forever Yogurt or a baked good from Defloured could compost their waste.
With even more compost to collect and transport to its North Branch Industrial Corridor facility, WasteNot's green and white electric trucks are likely to become an even more common sight in Andersonville, and potentially other business districts throughout the city.
"Now we’re getting calls from other neighborhood organizations, chambers and restaurant groups," Donnelly said. "This is viable now that they see 20 businesses all in one area [composting]."
While Chicago is probably years away from a citywide composting program, pilots like the one that Andersonville has implemented demonstrate what's possible when a community sets its sights on sustainability—and how a great idea can inspire others to join in.