Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Compost Chronicles: My Evening as a Garbage Picker

This post is the first in a new series documenting my quest to bring awareness to composting in Chicago.

I certainly knew that when I left my job as a big firm tax partner to start a catering company, my job description would change dramatically. At no point did this point become more apparent as I was picking through garbage at the Cultural Center last Friday evening.

My company was hired to be the main caterer for Seven Generations Ahead’s annual fundraiser, Taste of the Seasons, our first full zero waste event. As a general rule, we try hard to incorporate zero waste principles in our day-to-day business. Our mantra is to “think before you toss”. Accordingly, we have a recycling plan in place. We use almost no disposable product. We try to reuse our “waste” whenever possible (making crumbs from leftover bread and crackers, juicing trimmings from cucumber rounds, making stock from everything from chicken bones to shrimp shells to mushroom stems). Composting, however, has been our weakness.

Monogramme is the epitome of a boutique business. Because I have to balance our event schedule between Purple Asparagus, my class/ speaking schedule, and spending time with my family; we limit the events that we take on each month. One of the consequences of this choice is that the waste that we generate each month can be measured by the pound not the ton. Keeping this in mind, up until this point, we’ve tried to dispose of our compostable waste through my home composter: a challenge
that I will discuss in more detail in later posts.

Back to the SGA event, working with their “waste expert” Michelle Hickey, we established several waste stations throughout the room with recycling, composting and garbage bins. We gave our general instructions to the staff of 15 (most of whom had never even heard of zero waste) and we were on our way.

The most interesting questions arose at the bar. Are corks trash or compost? Compostable if natural cork, disposable if plastic. How about the foil that wraps the cork: recyclable. Plastic soda rings: recyclable.

Of course, the fun began when the event was over and we had to “audit” the garbage. Unfortunately, a few of the staff were operating under the common misperception that all plastic is recyclable so we had to fish out all of the plastic bags from the recyclable bins. We also had to extract the recycled paper napkins that many of our guests misjudged as garbage, not compost.

All in all, we did pretty well. We used china and flatware, so we avoided any waste in serving. Also, because it was a tasting event, there was little food waste. In fact, at the end of the event, this waste made its way to the composting facility in the car of Ken Dunn instead of the Resource Center’s truck.

For future events, Michelle Hickey will be putting together a chart that explicitly describes what goes into what bin that I’ve offered to review. My main suggestion is to allow the participating chefs who are not currently composting their food waste to bring it to the waste for disposal. It would then give a better picture of how much of that which goes into the event can be redirected from the landfill.


  1. I wish I could have made the SGA event, but business took me to Austin, TX that day.

    My whole family did garbage duty at the Green Fest last summer. I'm not sure if I should say, "I can relate" to your post or "you aint seen nothing until you've seen Navy Pier's garbage!" Anyways, it was fun and educational (in a gross way!)

    Keep up the good work!

  2. We were lucky as most of the food that was there was consumed, so it was mostly "clean" garbage that we were dealing with.