Maia Roothaan, a senior at ETHS, isn’t waiting for the results of high-level negotiations of world leaders in Glasgow at COP26 to deal with the planet’s worsening climate change.

This past summer, as a student at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, she applied for a grant from the State Department’s Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund to support a free composting program primarily for low-income Evanston families.

Cookies for Compost
Vivian Zhu, left, and Maia Roothaan of Cookies for Compost stand in front of a wall of compost buckets Saturday at the Robert Crown Community Center. (Photo by Libby Hill)

Roothaan was awarded $10,000 as the lead grantee. A fellow student in the Iowa program, Vivian Zhu, a sophomore at Stevenson High School in Vernon Hills, is the secondary lead as the social media coordinator.

The idea has been incubating in Roothaan’s mind for a long time. Her inspiration is her family, which has been composting for as long as she can remember. After researching the number of Evanston residents who are taking advantage of the Food and Yard Waste pickup program and those using the year-round Collective Resource composting services, she learned the numbers were dismal. The need for a free program became clear.

Collective Resource and the Robert Crown Community Center have been supportive partners. The program takes place at the community center on Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m.

This past Saturday, November 6, was launch day for registration, instructions and pickup of the bright orange buckets that are to be filled with a long list of compostable items. Filled buckets can be brought back to Crown to be emptied on subsequent Saturdays. Participants will be rewarded with a choice of locally popular Insomnia Cookies.

Roothaan explains, “Cookies are an immediate reward. I think exchanging compost, which by many is seen as stinky garbage, for cookies is a pretty good deal!”

The grant pays for the cookies, the buckets and all of the necessities of the program. There are 75 slots available (it is currently fully subscribed), and the hope is to collect more than 350 gallons of compost each Saturday. Officially the program runs through March, but Roothaan hopes to raise funds to continue it indefinitely.

Compost volunteers
Volunteers (including Roothaan, fourth from left) offer information on composting and cookies Saturday at the Robert Crown Community Center. (Photo by Peter Roothaan)

Participants on Saturday stressed the importance of composting to the future of the planet. When food scraps are placed in the regular garbage, they end up buried in a landfill where there is no oxygen to decompose them. They give off methane and carbon, contributing to the greenhouse gases that are warming the climate. In addition, landfills often leak toxins into the groundwater. The fewer items that end up in a landfill, the better.

In interviews, participants emphasized that composting is something an individual can do to make a difference. Students volunteering for the event stressed the importance of their own generation taking steps for the future of a sustainable Earth.

“My goal is to empower people who might not typically be able to afford making sustainable choices, such as composting,” Roothaan said. “Having drop-off instead of backyard composting makes one less step for participants to take, making composting more accessible. Using Robert Crown is also intended to make sure people don’t have to go off the beaten path, making composting easy. Crown is a community hub full of action. My plan is to first prioritize low-income folks and those who would not be able to compost without the program. Composting can cost a considerable amount of money. I want to remove that barrier for people.”

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.