Clean Air and Climate Change

SICC team members worked with an outstanding group of local educators, professors, restaurant managers, business owners, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and senior members of the Iowa Legislature to develop a national award-winning venture to reduce food waste and greenhouse gas emissions called the STEMS Zero Waste Project /  Chasing Methane.


Team members researched the causes of greenhouse emissions, particularly methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times as powerful a contributor to global warming as carbon dioxide. They identified food waste in landfills as a major source of methane production when it decomposes anaerobically, buried with other waste. They worked with several local restaurants to determine the amount of food waste generated, and the feasibility of restaurant employees separating out recyclables, food waste, and trash into separate streams. They also partnered with businesses in waste management and recycling, and visited the only landfill in the state that was conducting windrow composting using yard waste.


Team members worked with Iowa legislators to craft a study bill to allocate funding for a statewide pilot project in landfills to study food waste windrow composting for methane reduction. They lobbied the legislature and governor, met with local media, and even testified in the legislature. The bill passed the Iowa Senate, but, according to media reports, industry lobbyists, including McDonald’s and the American Forest and Paper Association, helped kill the bill in the House.   

However, the project still won national recognition and now serves as a model for future efforts in other states and communities. The project won the President’s Youth Environmental Award in 2013 and the team was invited to the White House to meet President Obama. Chasing Methane was also one of four national finalists in the eCybermission Competition and one of eight national finalists in the Christopher Columbus Competition, both of which earned the team all-expenses paid trips to Orlando and Washington D.C. for the final competition rounds.


The project received national press coverage from The Californian to the Indianapolis Star to the Des Moines Register, and many education and environmental publications, as well as significant coverage on state and regional radio and television.

In 2017, in part because of the advocacy work done by the team over several years, and despite the lack of support in the state legislature, municipal efforts did succeed quite spectacularly when Iowa City became the first city in the state to collect food waste at curbside and use windrow composting at the city landfill. And more recent efforts at making recycling and food waste diversion easier have been a resounding success.


Questions and Opportunities for Your Team:

  • Do restaurants in your area separate out food waste and recyclables?

  • Do landfills in your area conduct windrow composting, creating a valuable resource to improve soil quality, and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

  • How can you divert food waste from your garbage at home and start composting, and get other friends and families involved?

  • What other waste products can be repurposed or reused to complement composting?

  • How can you use the model of the Iowa Study Bill that the team members on SICC helped develop, and propose something similar in your state legislature?

  • How can you work with your city, local businesses, and landfills to set up food waste diversion, and even curbside pickup, based on the successful model in Iowa City?