The Waste Game: Getting Kids to Play Along

Written by Andi Dierich 

Just about every child in the Chicagoland Region has visited The Field Museum at some point in their academic life. The classic field trip to this natural history museum is filled with amazing sights of dinosaurs, gems, mummies and other ridiculously cool "things." After an exciting morning excursion, kids will sit down to eat. Slowly they will finish and pack discarded food and wrappers back into their bag. That bag will then make the journey to the blue and gray bins, recycling and waste bins to be exact. The children will go back to exploring the museum but our story remains in the cafeteria where big changes are now occurring even as this story is written!  

The History 

Delta Institute, a non-profit that builds both a resilient environment and economy through sustainable solutions, has been working with the Field Museum for the last 4 years. In 2013, The Field Museum underwent several changes by introducing two new restaurants, the Field Bistro and the Explorer Café, along with working towards LEED certification with the assistance of Delta Institute. As part of the LEED certification Delta Institute analyzed ways to reduce waste. Large generators such as food preparation and service were an easy way to tackle waste diversion. Changes such as weighing waste leaving the premises, and employing back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house recycling and composting programs were further assisted by moving to compostable food containers and flatware. This significantly increased the overall recycling stream from 10-15% to 40-50%! With the success of reducing waste through large generators, the Field Museum sought Delta Institute’s help with their smaller generators. One of those being the cafeteria for school and other groups, the Siragusa Center.  


The Problem

The Siragusa Center is a cafeteria area where kids bring their food in to eat, unlike the restaurants, this area is not managed by the food service provider. Waste in this area is harder to define and control due to the unregulated nature of what is brought in to eat. Rather than prescribe a solution for the Siragusa Center, by just adding a compost bin for example, Delta’s project team decided to take a closer look at waste stream, people, and behaviors that occur within the Siragusa Center. Initial observations included: 

  • Color-coded bins without further signage. A gray trash bin and a blue recycling bin.  
  • Users of the Center are school-age children from kindergarten all the way up to high school.  
  • The total interaction time with the Center was typically 30 minutes.  
  • Generally adults or chaperones assisted with waste determination.  
  • Students were frequently prompted to throw their materials into the trash. 
  • Nearly all materials went back into the original bag the food was packed in and tossed as a single unit.  

These initial observations highlighted the lack of communication and the confusion that resulted around the original waste set-up at the Center. In the baseline waste audit it was determined that only 14% of materials were being diverted from the waste bin, but the potential with the addition of compost bins was 70%. Lunch packaging items that groups appeared most confused about whether to recycle, compost or landfill included: plastics, plastic baggies, food containers with mixed components, and unopened or uneaten food.  

Working towards a Solution


From these initial observations, the project team developed six different options. These options were implemented individually and then evaluated for their effectiveness and design with the intent to implement the most successful treatment. The graphic below illustrates the various treatments that were applied with Treatment 1, the addition of a compost bin to the Center. This compost bin was color-coded similar to the waste and recycling but not specifically identified with extensive signage or other detail. Treatment 1 was created as the baseline for comparison to the other treatments, and Treatment 6 was the integration of all treatments together.

After each treatment was implemented the project team observed the behaviors of the group and completed a waste audit to analyze and quantify the amount of waste diverted. Although all treatments realized a greater waste diversion from the initial Treatment 1, where only 7% of material was diverted with a potential of 69% to be diverted, and only two individual treatments really stood out. The recommendation was thus implementing both of these strategies together to have maximum impact.  

What Worked


Treatments 2 and 5 were the most successful strategies to increase the recycling and composting. Treatment 2 involved handing a flyer out to adults that entered with students at the Center entrance. Although the project team did notice several adults disregard the communication flyer, they also noticed that there tended to be at least one adult with each group that prompted the kids to sort, and throw their leftover items into the appropriate bin. This resulted in a 30% diversion rate. Although usage issues still existed surrounding the bins, this produced significantly more waste reduction then just the color-coded bins alone.  The second highest diversion rate in an individual treatment was Treatment 5, which included signage and unique bin tops. This treatment realized a 22% waste diversion. The final treatment, Treatment 6, combined all strategies and had the greatest success of diverting 43% of materials. What was even more impressive was that the compost bin had a 98.6% pure stream!


  • Surprise, children in school settings actually follow direction from adults! We may think this to be a false statement, but when group leaders assisted and provided direction, children were more successful at recycling and composting.  
    • Lesson learned: utilize adults in school group settings! 
  • Signage and labeling are critical. There are several groups dedicated to creating a uniform look for recycling, waste and composting. Go with the flow and utilize the predominant color-coding scheme for recycling (blue) and composting (green), but realize some of the pre-made signage will not fit your facility or the typical consumption habits in the space. Be sure to tailor signage to what is most common in the space. 
    • Lesson learned: Signage isn’t one-size fits all but having visible simple designs with relatable items is key! 
  • Don’t depend on just one method to divert waste. Using combined methods truly makes a difference in the waste diverted and the quality of the separate streams.  
    • Lesson learned: Combine strategies for a better-rounded approach.  

Waste Game VIPs

  • Carter O'Brien, Sustainability Manager, Field Museum 
  • Kevin Dick, Director of Strategic Priorities, Delta Institute 
  • *Colleen McGinnis, Technical Associate, Delta Institute 
  • *Martin Brown, Technical Associate, Delta Institute 

* A special thank you to Martin Brown from the Project Team who provided details and information for this blog post and Colleen McGinnis for the graphics.


Scraping the Waste

IFSC Guest Blog Series by Andi Dierich, Environmental Coordinator for DuPage County, IL

North Central College (NCC) is a picturesque school in in the heart of downtown Naperville, Illinois. Although one of many colleges in the Chicagoland region, NCC stands out for their progressive push in the realm of sustainability. Beyond the permeable pavers, design awards for sustainability, community gardens and consistent ranking among the "top green colleges in North America," North Central College has a successful and continually growing food scrap composting program.

Creating the savingsWaste Management compost bins

In the fall of 2011, NCC received a grant through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), to begin a composting program in their central dining hall, Kaufman. The grant was a direct result of a 2011 waste audit that captured the pitching of nearly 206 pounds of food scraps daily. Not only was the food going to waste, but it was also estimated that the 3,300 gallons of water were used a day for the function of running the garbage disposal.

The potential savings of up to nearly $10,000 annually, the majority of the savings coming from the ditching the garbage disposals, was enough to move the program forward. Five years later IFSC wanted to check back in on one of the founding We Compost program members and see how things had developed.

Brittany Graham, the Sustainability Coordinator at NCC, was able to share several changes to the program including the shift from using an 8 yard trash compactor to a 2 yard trash dumpster and typical waste totes used for the food scraps. The ease of using the totes was a drastic change and better assisted in the management and amount of time dining staff, which oversee and run the food scrap collection, spends in dealing with the waste. Creative solutions included; resizing bins, adjusting the location of the collection units and adding lids were helpful touches to maintain a more visually appealing and functional scrap collection area. Other changes were made to reduce contamination by using re-usable flatware and compostable paper products. Due to overall success of the   Kaufman Dining food scrap collection the program was extended to a second food service location on campus. The new location, the White Activities Center student union, is different from the dining hall in that it has a unique set of challenges.

New locations, new challengesthree bin station

The student union is home to three different chain fast food restaurants. Each chain uses their own logoed serving products. Some products are compostable, others disposable and many items are recyclable. Two stations are set-up in the Union to provide students with the ability to compost, pitch their waste and recycle. Detailed graphics have been placed above each bin to help direct students in their decisions. In the future, to avoid a potential contamination problem, Ms. Graham hopes that she can work with the chain restaurants to begin all using similar products that are compostable. 

Looking to start a compost program at your location?

  • Complete a waste audit; be sure to include all things waste like the items that go down a garbage disposal!
  • Identify roadblocks or potential contamination sources and ways to solve them. Note: non-compostable or reusable material means that there is still a need for a waste receptacle.
  • Identify and include staff in the planning process that will maintain and be responsible for collection and cleaning food scrap receptacles.
  • Ensure lots of educational and instructional information is available to the users of the   food scraping program.
  • Track your success! There is nothing better than being able to state how much food is composted verses actual waste.

DYK: North Central College is a Gold Partner in the We Compost program.

Gold Partner businesses demonstrate the highest level of commitment to food scrap diversion by composting both pre-consumer and post-consumer food scrap. These businesses compost all kitchen trimmings during food preparation AND compost leftover plate scraps after a dish is served to students, faculty, staff, or guests. These businesses may additionally endeavor to analyze supply vs. waste and modify procedures to reduce food waste by ordering less or differently.

Get the Key to a Beautiful Lawn This Fall!

IFSC Guest Blog Series by Sara Ryan, St. Louis Composting

Feeding plants and your lawn a nutritious diet of compost throughout the year is the key to the best lawn on the block! Top dressing your lawn with compost in autumn is key to making it theKeyhole with image of lawn greenest on the block come spring. Top dressing, an industry secret among ground crews at golf courses, involves the direct application of a layer of compost and/or other organic material to grass. It's plain to see that with the help of St. Louis Composting and the Ecolawn Top Dresser, compost top dressing can become the core of your natural lawn care program.

This annual application of nutrient-rich organic material promotes healthy root structure by:

  • infusing soil with beneficial microbes and essential minerals
  • increasing soil aeration
  • improving drought resistance
  • lessening soil compaction

Top Dressing using STA-Certified Field and Turf Enhancer and the Ecolawn Top Dresser from St. Louis Composting improves soil structure. The addition of our Field and Turf Enhancer allows the soil to be more porous while furthering its water retention by up to 30% more and the development of new roots. By applying our compost with the Ecolawn Top Dresser you will stimulate the microbial activity in the soil which is particularly important for the health of the lawn.

Step-by-Step Guide to Top Dressing:

  • Core aerate the lawn, concentrating on the most heavily trafficked sections.
  • Apply a ½ inch layer of compost, using the Ecolawn Top Dresser.
  • Smooth the surface using a rake or weighted drag mat to break down soil plugs and backfill holes.
  • Spread grass seed, lightly rake, and water – making sure all seeds are covered with soil/compost layer to guard against winter damage.
  • Water as needed, keeping the soil moist until seeds germinate.

ecolawn top dresserThe Ecolawn Top Dresser is a multi-purpose self-propelled applicator. It's easy-to-use design will help you carry out customized top dressing applications such as restoring your existing lawn or dressing your newly seeded areas. Using the Ecolawn Top Dresser and STA-Certified Field and Turf Enhancer is the first step you can take to create a professional, complete and ecological maintenance program for your lawn. Top dressing corrects several problems at their source and allows for healthy soil and grass. It will help to promote healthy root structure by infusing soil with beneficial microbes and minerals, increasing soil aeration, relieving compaction problems and improving drought resistance.

Contact St. Louis Composting for additional information and to rent the Ecolawn Top Dresser today!
Top Dress is $85 to rent for a full day and $50 for half a day.