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Gardener Wants More Garbage For Compost, But Red Tape is Trashing His Plan

By Sam Cholke | September 4, 2013 9:22am
 Community gardeners are finding themselves bound by red tape when they try to swap compost.
Compost Red Tape
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HYDE PARK — Neighborhood gardeners are having trouble getting their hands on high-quality garbage.

“It’s not actually legal,” said Jake Klippenstein, a gardener in Hyde Park and Woodlawn trying to make enough compost material to satisfy the needs of multiple gardens.

At the Freedom Garden at 6025 S. Vernon Ave. in Woodlawn, the garden doesn’t produce enough plant material each year to meet its need for compost, Klippenstein said.

At Nichols Park at 1355 E. 53rd St. in Hyde Park, Klippenstein said there is lots of plant material to use for composting, but since it’s a public park, it’s a less-than-ideal location to perform the controlled rotting of making compost.

And Klippenstein said the current laws bar him — or any other gardener — from moving plant material from the garden or accepting food or landscape scraps from neighbors to make compost.

“Anybody can compost on their own property,” said Ken Dunn, who has started five urban farms in Chicago and a compost pickup service for restaurants and businesses.

“Community gardeners technically can’t take that produce home, trim it and bring it back,” Dunn said. “If it crosses property lines, there’s permits involved.”

Under city rules, gardeners without a permit can only make compost from plants grown on site and cannot buy, sell or trade compost from other gardens without a special permit from the state.

“State permits are not cheap,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the permit for the compost-processing center he ran in 2005 cost about $30,000. He now trucks the food waste he picks up from restaurants to Waste Management to be turned into compost and then buys the finished compost back to use at Perry Street Farm at 5700 S. Perry Ave. in Washington Park.

“That is partially citizen protection and partially to keep the number of players low,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the state is attentive to the city’s desires, and if the city wants to loosen the rules on composting, he said he thinks the state would listen.

“It’s possible in the future if the city passed a local ordinance,” Klippenstein said, adding that he is looking for alternatives until then.

He said he has posted fliers around Hyde Park over the weekend looking for others interested in finding creative ways to get their hands on their neighbors’ garbage for compost.

“Some people are starting what you might call a club,” Klippenstein said. A loophole in the rules allows clubs to skirt the restrictions on moving compost.

He said he sees potential in an arrangement similar the Urban Canopy’s compost club in the Back of the Yards that allows members to communally compost food scraps from their homes.

Klippenstein said other people in Hyde Park, Woodlawn or Washington Park interested in looking for new ways to turn kitchen scraps into compost should e-mail jacob.klippenstein@gmail.com.