The CRI Team and their orange buckets. Photo by David B. Sutton  

Five-gallon orange buckets may be a good start to saving the world from the climate crisis – if they are used for compost.

To help meet the City of Evanston’s sustainability goals, the City has entered into a franchise agreement with Collective Resource Inc. (CRI) to provide composting services to Evanston residents, effective Nov. 1.  Under the agreement, the private Evanston-based composting service will offer its basic residential service for a reduced rate.

According to the company’s website, CRI “[collects] all food waste and compostable products from homes, businesses, and institutions and [takes] them to a commercial composting site. The food scraps then become a nutrient-rich soil amendment instead of sitting in a landfill. Commerical composting is different from backyard composting, because anything that was once alive (including meat and dairy products) can be composted.”

The City will also start a Yard Waste Ride-Along program next spring.  Kumar Jensen, the City’s Sustainability Coordinator, explains the differences between the food-scrap collection by CRI’s buckets and totes and the City’s Yard Waste Ride-Along program.

“We are actually still finalizing some of the service levels and options between the two services, but the biggest differences are that the service offered through Collective Resource will be a 12-month service and will feature a ‘container-swap’ model program, where each individual container a property owner pays for will be picked up and swapped for an entirely clean container,” said Mr. Jensen.

“There may also be some variability in what materials are accepted between each service,” he added. “Additionally, the service length for the Yard Waste Ride-Along program will be seasonal (April 1 – Mid-December) and is a tipped service, meaning that the containers are tipped or dumped by the yard waste collection truck and then set back in their collection location – that is,  each property keeps the exact same container and nothing is swapped.”

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, says she sees advantages for Evanston residents in the arrangement. “The City’s agreement with [CRI] will make it easy for more Evanstonians to participate in composting their food scraps,” she said. “CRI will offer food-scrap collection to the many residents who live in multi-family apartment buildings and who won’t be served by the Food Scrap Ride-Along service.  And it will provide an option for those who want a collection service between Dec. 15 and March 30, when the Ride Along program will not be available.

“On a personal note, we have been very satisfied CRI customers for over three years,” Alderman Revelle added. “It’s been exciting to watch this woman-owned, local business grow as it helps advance Evanston’s important sustainability goals.” 

The owner of Collective Resource, Erlene Howard, said the City is breaking new ground by giving the franchise to a small woman-owned business.  “Evanston is incredibly unique in signing a franchise agreement with us. I don’t know of anyone who is not a major hauler who has gotten an agreement like this,” she said.

A 22-year resident of Evanston, Ms. Howard founded CRI in 2010 after she realized that her commitment to an organic food diet did not completely fulfill her passion to heal the planet. So much nutrient-rich food was still invariably ending up in landfills. This realization led to her founding of the first Evanston-based commercial composting service.

CRI Zero Waste Consultant Mary Beth Schaye pointed out that Mount Trashmore used to be the site of Evanston’s landfill. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to do that locally,” she said. Today Evanston’s garbage is hauled all the way out to a landfill in Rockford. On the other hand, CRI trucks carry the food scraps to a commercial composting facility only as far as the City of Chicago. 

Ms. Howard and Ms. Schaye met back in 2010 when Ms. Schaye co-chaired the Dewey Elementary Green Committee. She was looking for a way to compost 200 plates from a pancake breakfast. Ms. Schaye said, “I called the Evanston Ecology Center and they said, ‘There’s this woman who’s started her own composting business.’”

So Ms. Schaye called Ms. Howard. “When Erlene explained [the composting service] to me I completely got it.  You order the right products, you compost all of the food – not just some of the food, all of the food. And it turned out to be exactly what she said. She makes composting easy – so easy.”

It was such a satisfying experience, Ms. Schaye wanted to help other schools and organizations have their own zero-waste events, so she joined the company six months later.

On its mission to reduce landfill use, CRI has grown steadily since its founding.  All told they have diverted 3,300 tons of food scraps to be converted into compost that is used by landscaping services. Ms. Howard said, “We hauled 809 tons in 2016. To date we have diverted 3,300 tons, with each year surpassing the prior.”

“We don’t really advertise, we mostly go by word of mouth,” Ms. Howard said. “People occasionally come from other cities and look for a composting service or people decide they want to do it and look for it.  We prefer to educate people about the benefits of composting, so we do fairs like the green living festival,” and they also work with local environmental groups at farmers’ markets, she said. “It really helps that there are Go Green groups in many communities that support what we’re doing”

Mr. Jensen said, “The actual service that [CRI is offering], food scrap composting, helps the City’s sustainability goals in a variety of ways including reducing waste sent to landfills, reducing build-up of methane in landfills, creating community awareness about food waste in general, reducing recycling contamination by allowing food scraps to be disposed of separately, providing the groundwork/infrastructure to allow for a transition from plastic single use containers to compostable containers throughout the community. This new service offering also allows for a more robust approach to reducing what is sent to the landfill by providing another disposal option and would allow the City to adopt, if appropriate, a zero waste goal or an aggressive waste reduction target.”

Ald. Revelle added, “Together, all of these collection programs will help Evanston fulfill its commitment to the Global Covenant of Mayors by reducing emissions related to solid waste.”   

Also, CRI’s five-gallon buckets and 32-gallon totes help measure the progress the City is making. CRI currently has 18 weekly Chicagoland routes covering from Lake Bluff to the South Loop in Chicago. “We have made three routes exclusively for Evanston businesses and residents to accurately report on tonnage diverted from our City,” said Ms. Howard.

Even though commercial composting is a more efficient way to reuse food, Ms. Howard and Ms. Schaye emphatically support people’s individual yard composting efforts as well. “We can’t recycle ourselves out of our climate crisis,” says Ms. Schaye. But it truly is possible to reverse global warming if everyone works together to be part of the solution.