NU Declassified: Uncovering Cats Who Compost on campus

Bettina Sánchez Córdova, Reporter



In this episode of NU Declassified we look into the student organization Northwestern’s Cats Who Compost and its ongoing projects. To get the story, we talked to the organization’s founder as well as current members of its team.

ELLA DEBODE: It just makes me feel happy. Like, I know I’m not creating waste. When I calculated the fact that we had composted 640 gallons of compost in a quarter and a half basically, that was so exciting. Like I would go compost, and the bucket would be full.


BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Bettina Sánchez Córdova. This is NU Declassified, a podcast that takes a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. That was Northwestern graduate and founder of Cats who Compost, Ella DeBode (SESP ‘21).

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: DeBode came up with the idea for Cats who Compost during her quarter abroad in Denmark and started the organization during the fall of her senior year. She saw how difficult it was to make environmentally-friendly decisions.

ELLA DEBODE: I think I was first really exposed to it when I was studying abroad in Copenhagen. I was living in just an apartment building with a lot of other international students. But just to take out the trash, there were like six different bins.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: During the pandemic, DeBode started composting in her home. Once she got to campus, she wanted to start composting in her apartment, but it was more difficult than she anticipated.

ELLA DEBODE: The apartment building that my roommates and I lived in didn’t really have a space where we could keep a bucket. You had to keep it outside, there are all these rules, like it just wasn’t really feasible. And also there’s an added charge, which isn’t always possible for students living off campus.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Cats who Compost took off the Winter Quarter of Debode’s senior year. Hillel, a center for Jewish life on Northwestern’s campus, approached her about starting to compost.

ELLA DEBODE: Because we were still remote, everything had to be outside and there was no regular meetings, no regular club activities, that kind of stuff. So they were looking for just new ways to engage with people within the Northwestern community that they normally wouldn’t and just another way to kind of create community on such a virtual campus. And so I was like, I can have Hillel a place where we can do composting, and they would also pay for the service and students could compost for free. And that’s kind of how it started.


ARTHUR LEBOVITZ: My name is Arthur Lebovitz. I am a junior studying Learning and Organizational Change.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Lebovitz is the current Cats Who Compost community engagement head. He joined the organization through Hillel. He said he admires how Cats Who Compost makes composting easier for students.

ARTHUR LEBOVITZ: I definitely think when you understand and realize that composting is super accessible here, and I say super accessible, which is a bit of a stretch, but I mean it’s like a 10-minute walk.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Cats Who Compost had difficulty increasing engagement because fall of 2020 was when COVID-19 regulations at Northwestern were still very strict. Debode launched the initiative by starting an Instagram page to get more students aware of the issue and the composting location on campus.

ELLA DEBODE: It kind of started to pick up on its own. I was posting content about how composting is really great for the planet like, there’s so many stats on it that are just honestly mind blowing — so like these crazy facts. And it’s like so easy, and it was so easy, it’s on campus. And it was also right by where we were all getting tested twice a week.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Northwestern graduate student and Cats who Compost member Natalie Myren is one of the first people DeBode mentioned having support for Cats Who Compost. Myren grew up recycling and composting at home, so when she got to Northwestern as an undergraduate student, she was already composting often before finding out about the organization at the end of her third year.

NATALIE MYREN: I was living off campus and looking for a place to drop my own compost. At the time, I had been putting it in the freezer and taking it home occasionally. Hadn’t been wanting to pay 30 bucks a month to get the pickup. So, there were a few students, a small group of us, who had this similar interest in creating composting services. And we came together, officially have only been a registered student organization for six to eight months, I believe.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Once people started finding out, DeBode remembered having to get more buckets because they were already overflowing with compost. She also started receiving messages asking about the bins and became really excited — Cats Who Compost was finally taking off.

ELLA DEBODE: We’d created like 640 gallons of waste that was being composted rather than put in the trash, which is really exciting. I was getting Facebook messages and Instagram direct messages from grad students. And they’re like, “Can we use the bucket?”


BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: But how does composting work on Northwestern’s campus? And how was Cats Who Compost helping?

KELLY TEITEL: I’m Kelly Teitel, and I am a sophomore this year. I got involved in Cats Who Compost early on in my freshman year ​​— so last year.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Teitel’s friends referred her to the organization, knowing she was an environmentalist. Now, Kelly is in charge of internal outreach at Cats Who Compost. She typically organizes events with different clubs and student organizations.

KELLY TEITEL: For example, we did a crossover event with Wild Roots, another club on campus, so we did a pot painting event with them. And then we’re also trying to get composting bins in sorority houses and fraternity houses.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Teitel said that a lot of people don’t know what is compostable.

KELLY TEITEL: Everything that’s food waste, you can compost. So that’s the easiest thing. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty, there are a lot of things that you wouldn’t necessarily think of, but all you have to do is figure out who your composting provider is, because every provider is going to have a different set of rules just with what they can handle. Go to that page or web page or something, figure out what they take and then go from there. But like, for example, a lot of people don’t know that you can compost newspapers and cardboard and things like that.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Myren said there are many ways a person can compost.

NATALIE MYREN: In general with composting, there are a few different levels. You have like your traditional backyard composting, where you might do stuff with worms and fruits and veggies. What Cats Who Compost offers is industrial-level composting where you can compost things like dryer lint and bones. We collaborate with an organization based in Evanston called Collective Resource Compost, so they pick up compost on a weekly basis from our sites. Prior to the existence of Cats Who Compost, if I wanted to, like, engage with their services, I would maybe look into a monthly subscription where I pay some sum of money to get my bucket of compost picked up. But for students who are on a tight budget — it’s not the nicest option.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Teitel recommended having your own composting bin with a sealable lid. It can be anything from a mason jar to a Ziploc bag. This can be put in the freezer so that it doesn’t smell. Every week, Collective Resource can pick up the compost.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Myren is now one of the leaders of the Cats who Compost and is in charge of the drop-off sites. Currently, they have three, but are hoping to expand.

NATALIE MYREN: The first original one, and also our largest, is located directly behind Hillel, you can access it through the alley. There are about four or five composting totes — it’s the word that’s used by Collective Resource. We also have bins up behind the Sheil Catholic Center, which is a few blocks north of Hillel, and then a bin behind University Christian Ministry and that is a few blocks south of Hillel. We also are only able to place them on property that the University does not directly hold. So that’s why we’re based out of these sorts of religious centers, not necessarily because we have a direct tie to them in our programming or anything, but they have graciously hosted us and our bins.


BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Since its founding, Cats Who Compost has hit a few bumps in the road. Myren said it was hard to establish themselves as a Registered Student Organization, or RSO, on campus because the University already had a program running.

NATALIE MYREN: Prior to establishing this organization, I really didn’t see much dialogue or any services really centered around composting on campus. We had an idea that they composted on the back and the back end in the dining halls, but oftentimes that conveyor belt would stop working, and I would just personally see so much food waste end up in the trash. From my understanding, we’re not able to put these bins on campus grounds because the University has their own waste management collection system services that this would not fall under or either be supported by or some sort of just regulation in the way where we would need to house our very large bins on other private property.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Even though Cats Who Compost has made progress, Lebovitz feels the University still has a long way to go in terms of sustainability and composting.

ARTHUR LEBOVITZ: I don’t wanna rail on the University, like not saying that this place stinks, like there’s no sustainability efforts going on cause there are. I just think that this is such an obvious one to all of us in the club. And we’re just like bewildered that there hasn’t been anything and the University knows that we exist, you know, but they’re still not trying to reach out, to just be like, “Hey, how can we help out?” I think that’s the whole point of an institution like this is to be helping out student initiatives. I’m not even trying to say we’re like above an ASG level, but it’s like, ASG — those funds should be for student orgs that are building community. This is for a necessity in the community.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: In order for the Northwestern community’s lifestyle to change, Lebovitz said there needs to be a more institutionalized approach or more resources available to students.

ARTHUR LEBOVITZ: It is one of those things you can give someone a fish or you can teach them how to fish. Or it’s like we can teach people how to fish but there needs to be a lake. And we can’t build a pond, you know, we don’t have the resources to be doing that. We want to teach as many people to fish and like compost, but that’s been our biggest hurdle, I think.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Even with all the setbacks, Lebovitz still supports any Northwestern movement about living a sustainable lifestyle — he just wished they were more committed to the cause.

ARTHUR LEBOVITZ: Composting is a wave. It’s just, it’s happening around the world. I mean, California just legalized it within the state and for Northwestern to be seen as this one of most prestigious universities in the world and to not be encouraging their student’s behaviors to also change, to me, it’s just tough to wrap my head around. And I know that sustainNU is providing many opportunities and resources and there’s this whole sustainability conference, I think through ISEN (Institute for Sustainability and Energy) that’s happening next week. So there are events going on, it’s just in terms of specific behavior like walking the walk.


BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: Teitel recognized that practicing sustainability is not an easy thing. She called it a lifestyle change that requires effort and a mentality to accomplish. While getting into composting can be a big change for some in their routines, Teitel emphasized how rewarding it can be for yourself and the environment.

KELLY TEITEL: I think it can be difficult for a lot of people who have never done anything like this before, and especially as college students, like we’re all really busy. And it just seems like another thing on the to do list, but every little thing counts. And then as soon as you do one thing, like I said, it’s a domino effect. So you start composting and then you start thinking about other ways that you can reduce your carbon impact and things like that. So it just kind of builds from there.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: She is searching for ways to reach beyond the typical audience of Cats Who Compost.

KELLY TEITEL: I think that all of our Northwestern sustainability initiatives, it’s usually targeted towards the same people, you know the people that take environmental science classes or things like that. And so I feel like we’re missing a large part of Northwestern’s student population.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: However, Myren said since starting in Cats Who Compost and becoming an official Registered Student Organization in Spring Quarter of 2021, she has already seen the growing demand for composting services around campus.

NATALIE MYREN: We’ve seen a lot more interest both in general community members. We now have a roster of 200 or so folks who receive our monthly newsletters, and who show up to events, and who use our free compostable bin liners and other materials. But we’re also like tangibly seeing interest because our bins are full every single week and often overflowing. We have these great photos of compost literally spewing out of our compost bins.

BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: When looking towards the future of Cats Who Compost and composting at Northwestern, Lebovitz also talked about some of the organization’s goals for the future.

ARTHUR LEBOVITZ: The goal should be for the University as an institution to be implementing compost as many places as they can. And Cats Who Compost, our responsibility is no longer to fundraising for bins or anything — we are now going to be the facilitators of composting and people. I feel like there’s still so much room to grow in terms of how to really be influencing people’s behaviors. And I think that yes, composting is our main mission, but it’s really a zero-waste club. Like how can we really not just mitigate our waste, but just shrink it as far as we can.


BETTINA SÁNCHEZ CÓRDOVA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Bettina Sánchez Córdova. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The Audio Editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lawrence Price, the Digital Managing Editor is Angeli Mittal and the Editor-in-chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @bettinasanchezc

NU Declassified: The Late Night Debate — Fran’s versus Lisa’s
NU Declassified: A peer adviser’s real perspective
NU Declassified: Washing off the Mudd