People & Profiles

Waste deep: Loyola alums take on the waste problem

By Rosie McCarty

Two men lift a large piece of wood into a large green dumpster on a curb

Working in waste management isn’t seen as especially desirable. For the environment’s sake, it really should be, as landfills continue growing and climate change worsens.

Two Loyola University Chicago alums, Liam Donnelly and Kelly Hof, have a unique understanding of the United States’ waste problem. And as most Americans mindlessly fill their garbage bins, Donnelly and Hof are doing something about it.

Composting your waste should be easier than throwing it in a landfill

In his neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago, 15-year-old Liam Donnelly was known as the “compost kid.” He could often be seen furiously biking with buckets of coffee grounds from his first job at a restaurant to his backyard compost heap. When other community businesses learned what he was doing, they wanted to hire him. And so WasteNot Compost was born.

Too young for a driver’s license, Donnelly, who would eventually go on to attend and graduate from Loyola’s School of Environmental Sustainability (SES), built his business around his bike—zero emissions from the beginning. “The customers kept coming in, and I was biking more. My solution to the growth was I just bike longer,” Donnelly says. “It was the most environmentally sustainable the company will ever be, and there was no way I could keep doing it.”

Donnelly partnered with his high school friend Lauren Kaszuba, now the company’s chief operating officer, and they bought their first electric van on Craigslist. Before Donnelly even matriculated at Loyola, his company’s 12 compost accounts had grown to 300.

“As a company, one of our primary missions is to make composting easier than conventional recycling and more appealing than conventional trash,” he says. “We take your full dirty pale, bring it back to our facility, dump it, wash it, and sanitize it. Nobody else is cleaning out your trash can. It’s really the cleanest way you can dispose of your trash.”

Donnelly chose to attend Loyola because of its commitment to sustainability—and because he could continue growing WasteNot while studying at SES. Today, WasteNot serves more than 5,000 Chicago residents plus a growing suburban and commercial client base. They employ 25 people and are one of Illinois’ largest electric fleets, operating 30 electric vans. More impressive, they are the largest fully electric compost collector in the country, and the only one that is entirely carbon neutral.

Composting is nothing new, but Donnelly wants to make it second nature for all households, even those that are not, as Donnelly calls them, “sustainability junkies who are living their life every day to be green.”

For Donnelly, connecting people with their food waste through composting is critical.

“If you don’t know what’s happening to your recycling or your compost, eventually you start forgetting why you’re doing it,” he says.
Individual lifestyle changes that help the environment, like biking to work or buying an electric car, aren’t feasible for everyone. But Donnelly believes composting can be. “Learning to throw your food waste into a different colored bin is such a tiny step. And that’s really all it becomes.”

Loyola University Chicago alumnae Kelly Hof at the Stericycle plant in Itasca, IL, where medical waste is processed and collection bins are cleaned and sterilized. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)
Loyola University Chicago alumnae Kelly Hof at the Stericycle plant in Itasca, IL, where medical waste is processed and collection bins are cleaned and sterilized. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

Sustainability should be top of mind for the health care industry

When you get your blood drawn at the doctor’s office, what happens to the dirty needle? What about the blood-stained gauze used to put pressure on the needle prick? What about the plastic gloves worn by the phlebotomist?

What happens to medical waste is not something you think about when you’re sick and need care from a practitioner. Unfortunately, the health care industry as a whole is extremely wasteful, with sanitary single-use products as the standard. Balancing the impact of such waste on the environment with the sensitivity around disease management and pharmaceuticals can be tricky, even within an industry that is highly regulated.

“You know the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle? I can’t even dig into reduce or reuse because infection control wins every argument in terms of reusing anything,” says Kelly Hof, program manager of hospital services for Stericyle, a medical waste disposal and compliance training organization.

Originally pre-med at Loyola, Hof shifted her area of study to environmental sustainability and now finds herself marrying her passions for health care and the environment on a daily basis at Stericyle, where she has worked for more than five years.

Stericycle manages all waste that comes out of a hospital, including traditional garbage and recycling as well as medical and pharmaceutical waste. The company then ensures said waste is disposed of appropriately, conscious of government regulations and environmental impacts.

“We want to promote a safe environment for humanity in terms of dealing with this waste,” says Hof. “We also want to protect this waste from reaching our environment and not washing up in our rivers, lakes, and streams.”

It’s no surprise that chemicals and narcotics, when not properly disposed of, can be hazardous to the earth. But so can things we might consider “natural,” like homeopathic medicine and multivitamins. Everything from fish to plants to wildlife can be negatively impacted if this type of waste is not treated responsibly.

“It’s very eye-opening to understand all the ins and outs of health care and how waste applies to it,” says Hof. “It’s nice to have people like me and other folks who have environmental sustainability in mind because it is a very wasteful industry.”
The COVID-19 pandemic only magnified the wastefulness of health care, as doctors and nurses burned through PPE and medical-grade masks. Hof was at the forefront of Stericyle’s response and helped hospitals continually pivot in their waste processes as the pandemic evolved.

Reflecting on how she got to where she is, Hof credits Loyola and the opportunities she had as a student, particularly within the Office of Sustainability, as a main driver for the work she does today. “I got the best education I could have gotten from Loyola, and it very much did prepare me for what I’m doing now” says Hof. “I’m rooted in sustainability, and that will continue to be my passion as I continue in my career.”

Read more stories from the School of Environmental Sustainability.