At Columbia College Chicago, we don’t do “normal”. We praise ourselves for not building our collegiate culture around sports teams, fraternities, or sororities. Instead we do art crawls, dance events, open mics, and large-scale film critiques. Even our campus operations are anything but “normal”. We have no cafeteria or food court, we own one residence center for on-campus housing, and we are largely a commuter-based campus. Sustainability has become a large focus at Columbia, as we continue to integrate it into our arts-based mission and accentuate the talent and creative forces around us. In the last several years, recycling has become habit on campus, so we set our sights on the next goal: compost. Through all the challenges we have faced, we have learned to be resourceful and have found creative solutions to creating and building a campus-wide compost program.
Part of my job at Columbia College includes maintaining the green spaces on campus. While doing this in the past, I had a strong negative reaction to throwing away branches, leaves, weeds, and other landscaping waste that naturally occurs in our outdoor green spaces. For me, growing up in rural Michigan, composting was a way of life. I knew there had to be a better and more sustainable way to replicate this in Chicago. Initially, we started with a few bins, collecting yard waste and storing scraps from our green spaces. We contract with Resource Center, a non-profit environmental organization, to haul our material to a Land and Lakes composting facility.
Columbia College Pilot Program
With no funds for extra equipment, we had to think “outside the box” to create a pilot compost program that proved its value and competency. By showing initial success, there would be a better chance to create a campus-wide program. Composting efforts were originally an offshoot of our recycling program as we rescued old used plastic buckets from our photography department’s recycling bins. After the bins were cleaned and branded, we used them to collect food scraps from cafes and staff offices for a semester. During the first month of collection in September 2011, we collected and composted 900 pounds of food. In this learning and experimenting period, we began preparing for additional bins and locations. With a tight budget and small staff, it would be a challenge to achieve. Well, challenge accepted.
With experience and data to benchmark our efforts, we applied for an Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Food Scrap Grant. At Columbia College, we do not have the space or infrastructure to process organics on campus, so we decided to focus on using the grant funding for bins. We believed this strategy would provide a “foot in the door” to grow the initiative. We used the results of our pilot program to prove to our department and DCEO that we had a working model that could be used to provide a significant increase in food scraps diversion from our waste stream.
Columbia College Chicago was awarded a food scrap grant by DCEO in spring 2012. With the funds, we were able to purchase a variety of different sized bins. In addition, we purchased wheeled toters for events and coffee cup recycling bins to collect and compost paper cups and cardboard sleeves. We were able to roll out the program in phases as to not overwhelm participants or the expanding operations.
Logistics is a significant consideration in Columbia’s program as there are no centralized food service location (cafeteria, food court, etc.) to eat or buy food. Three café shops reside on campus. There is one part-time worker that collects compost as a fraction of his other duties. Strategic distribution and collection of the bins, along with strong communication, has been crucial in creating a successful program.
Food Scrap Program Roll Out in Three Phases
The first phase included outfitting the most trafficked staff and faculty locations with bins. To start, approximately 20 bins were passed out. We believed that if we could change habits in these offices, they would spread to other parts of campus. Our approach was to find a liaison in each department that could field communication, spread information, and be a composting advocate for the rest of their office. Most importantly, they acted as a prime example of what to do and how to do it correctly. The different bin sizes allowed us to maximize collection efficiency as time went on. Instead of higher frequency of pickups, simply changing out the size of the bin optimized our efficiency. Most bins are picked up twice per week and the higher concentrated locations get three pickups. During each pickup, we wipe the bins out with a non-toxic cleaner and replace the collection bag. This has allowed us to keep things clean and sanitary, which has resulted in little-to-no complaints.
After the first phase, about 15 additional bins were added to the staff and faculty locations, as well as collecting materials from special events. This created a buzz on campus allowing more people to become aware of the program and request collection of food scraps at events. Event composting grew quickly to include some of Columbia’s biggest events, department parties, and student events. We found it was extremely important to have a presence at new student orientation to set a tone for the students as they are being introduced to the Columbia College culture, and in forming proper habits.
In the second and third phase, we placed free-standing bins in spaces where students meet, eat, and hang out. We made sure that each bin had clear signage, and was aesthetically pleasing for both events and public spaces. We have re-done our signage a few times to speak as clearly and efficiently to our demographic at Columbia as possible. We set another 10-15 bins in staff and faculty locations as well.
From August 2011 – September 2012, approximately 21,000 pounds of compostable materials was collected from over 20 locations, cafes, green spaces, and a couple events. In the next year after our expansion, nearly 28,000 pounds of compostable materials were collected. As of now, we are on pace to increase that number and reach over 30,000 pounds in our third full year of composting.
We have learned that collaboration across collegiate departments is critical to ensure a successful program. Collaboration creates opportunities that we never thought were possible. As we educate people and make them feel invested, they open up. We found that these partnerships needed time to develop, and couldn’t be forced. Sometimes, you can’t take no for an answer, but have to find how to approach the situation in a different manner. Reaching out to and working with departments that specifically deal with student events and programs, has established a successful foundation for the success of our program.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be not to give up. Many times you have the same conversation with ten different people before you reach the right person. Then, all of a sudden things may click. Be creative in your approach, never burn your bridges, and plant seeds of change. Working through challenges brings learning experiences. Every situation will have its unique obstacles, as our program did. May this example give you the motivation to keep moving forward!
Please feel free to contact me to discuss piloting a compost program in your school or place of business. Columbia College Chicago is proud to serve as an example of success and means of support for your waste reduction endeavors.
Compost and Green Space Coordinator, Columbia College Chicago
- Columbia College Sustainability: students.colum.edu/sustainability
- Columbia College Diversion Report: issuu.com/sustaincolumbia/docs/annualdiversionpacket
- DCEO Grant Tracker: granttracker.ildceo.net