Aaron Lemma

If you would have told Marie Nowak, the rectory chef at Old St.  Joseph’s (OSJ) in Philadelphia, that she would start a movement with eggshells and apple cores, she probably wouldn’t have believed you.

Marie cooks three meals a week for the priests serving at OSJ. In December of 2021, she started composting kitchen scraps from these meals.

Composting is when you take leftover bits of organic matter—like banana peels, that arugula you didn’t eat in time, or houseplant clippings—and place them in a designated waste bin. A composting company then collects this food waste, turns it into nutrient-rich topsoil, and returns it to you as organic fertilizer.

Composting not only makes healthier gardens—it also reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When food waste enters a landfill, it rots ‘anaerobically,’ producing methane, a GHG that is 25 times more potent than CO2. So, reducing food waste in landfills can decrease your personal carbon footprint.

Marie continued composting on a small scale, encouraging rectory staff to add their lunch scraps to the bin. It eventually became community compost, as did the soil that came back.

It’s often hard to measure the impact individual actions like composting have on the environment. Luckily, Bill Stigliani, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at University of Northern Iowa and Chair of OSJ’s Creation Care Committee, has some experience.

With Bill’s leadership, the committee set out to measure Marie’s environmental impact. They determined that, in the 18 months since she began, Marie prevented 820 pounds of food waste from going to the landfill. In turn, she prevented more than 1,000 pounds of GHG emissions from entering the atmosphere. For her efforts, she secured 500 pounds of humus-rich topsoil for her parish and fellow parishioners.

OSJ’s composting story now has a sequel. Following Marie’s example, Bill’s committee worked with OSJ’s Faith, Food, and Friends program, which provides lunches and counselling services for homeless men and women who are welcomed as “guests.” Luncheon food wastes are now collected for composting. Along with the accrued environmental benefits, the guests view this effort as a source of pride, for they too, have become environmentalists.

Bill shared this story at EcoPhilly’s gathering at Villanova University last November. This annual event allows creation care ministries across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to gather, share resources, and learn from each other.

Mo Gillen, a parishioner at Our Mother of Good Counsel (OMGC) in Bryn Mawr, was paying close attention to Bill’s talk.

Mo left the conference inspired. When reflecting on her main takeaway, one word emerged: “Love.” As a member of OMGC’s Stewardship and Sustainability Committee, Mo had been working with her pastor, Fr. Joe Mostardi, on a stewardship prayer to be placed on the hymnal back covers in time for Advent. Love became the central theme of that prayer.

The committee’s next project was to follow OSJ’s lead and begin composting. They partnered with Mother Compost, a Main Line organization that streamlines the process. For a subscription, Mother Compost provides composting bins which fill throughout the week, then are picked up weekly, with topsoil available in the spring. Mother Compost also partners with other religious groups, including St. Raphaela Center in Havertown and Arrupe Hall, the Jesuit residence at Saint Joseph’s University.

The committee then sponsored an Earth Day event where they shared simple ways parishioners could help the environment, such as composting and supporting local, sustainable businesses, like SHIFT in Narberth.

Under Fr Joe’s leadership, parishioners are now used to seeing three bins at church functions—one for compost, one for recycling, and one for remaining trash. The parish has also switched to compostable plates and cups. Altar flowers are composted, too.

You may be wondering if an act as simple as composting can truly have an impact. Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudate Deum, addresses this concern:

“Let us realize, then, that even though [small acts do not] produce a notable effect from the quantitative standpoint, we are helping to bring about large processes of transformation rising from deep within society.” Encyclical Letter Laudate Deum (04 April 2023), 71.

Our Holy Father is encouraging us to think bigger than ourselves. Every step towards living in greater societal harmony and in loving awareness of creation is worth taking. From knowing where our food grows to where our trash goes – each small action transforms us into a culture more in love with God.

In doing our part, we are leaving behind a better world for future generations.

We hope your faith community will consider composting, and EcoPhilly is here to help. To learn more, visit our personal action checklist here. Please feel encouraged to contact us at  info@ecophilly.org to discuss starting your composting initiative.


Aaron Lemma is Outreach and Operations Manager at Water is Life Kenya, a nonprofit organization that brings clean water, opportunity, and hope to the Maasai people of Southern Kenya.