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May 15, 2014
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Aspen Times Weekly: Talk dirty to me

“What does ‘dirt’ mean to you?” Eden Vardy asks the people gathered around a work table in a small shed at the Pitkin County Landfill. The answers the group give are diverse; and they are anything but dry as dust — words like “life,” “food” and “future” crop up repeatedly.

“Only in the English language does ‘dirt’ conjure up negative images; I am glad to hear you all have a different definition,” says Vardy, founder of Aspen TREE, who is leading a workshop on “eco gardening” as part of the landfill’s new Living Laboratory series. “That is what we are trying to do here — redefine our thoughts about dirt and the land that surrounds us.”

The Living Lab series extends beyond dirt — past workshops included “Yard Tractors: Raising Chickens for Fun and Food” and another on composting; upcoming talks will focus on growing tomatoes at high altitude and controlling invasive weeds (see sidebar, page 22) — but it never loses sight of its mission: teaching people about the world around them, including the local dump.

“People who say dump — and I say it, too — might think that once they throw something out, it’s gone,” says Jack Johnson, public outreach/education coordinator for the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center. “Well, what you threw out may not be in your house or your garage, but it lives on somewhere else. Oftentimes, that’s the Pitkin County Landfill.

“I’ve always loved the landfill; a lot of people have always loved the landfill. But we haven’t always realized its potential ... the time has come to change that.”

In fact, change is already happening — in part because it has to.

“Because of Pitkin County’s limitations, we will never have another dump,” explains Johnson. “So we have to preserve the life of this one.”

According to county officials, we can only bury trash at the current landfill for an estimated 25 more years. A push for composting will help extend the landfill’s life (see “Go Green,” this page). And a move to divert other items from being buried is also a key to success; currently, some 60 percent of materials that could go in the landfill are diverted

“Actually, burying things is our last option,” says Johnson. “When I took on this job, I asked myself how we could build on the good work already being done and the answer was clear: educate people.

“Create a shift in attitude about what a landfill is; help people realize the landfill’s potential.”

Already area residents seem to know about recycling. But a gap remains.

“There is a great desire by people to garden — and urban farming is going on all over the place — but in one of the greenest places on earth, we don’t even have a real nursery. And people have questions.

“We started the Living Lab to help answer those questions.”

In the eco-gardening class led by Vardy, many questions were indeed answered. But others were raised. And, in the words of one local gardener: “Dirt is something we take for granted, but soil really is the foundation of everything.”

Johnson, for one, recognizes this. And his plans for the local landfill pay homage to the idea that the d-words — dirt, dump — have untapped potential.

In addition to the Living Lab series, Johnson’s plans (all made possible with the help of “yes-sayer” and Pitkin County Solid Waste Center manager Cathy Hall) include the creation of a public meeting space and interactive area — all set atop a capped off portion of the landfill.

“I can see this outdoor meeting space doing double-duty as a showcase for how a landfill can work, with raised garden beds, a mini-greenhouse, and so on — all made with repurposed materials.”

And in a world filled with bureaucracy, Johnson also sees this endeavor as the perfect public/private partnership.

“Isn’t this what government is supposed to do?” asks Johnson, a former Pitkin County commissioner. “It’s giving back to the community by using a community resource.”

For Vardy, it’s just common sense: “The miracle of all of this is that we can just allow the world around us to do the work.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com

“I’ve always loved the landfill; a lot of people have
always loved the landfill. But we haven’t always
realized its potential ... the time has come to
change that.”
— jack johnson, pitkin county landfill,
public outreach \/education coordinator


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The Aspen Times Updated May 15, 2014 11:00AM Published May 15, 2014 12:36PM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.