Aspen Times Weekly: The beauty in the breakdown |

Aspen Times Weekly: The beauty in the breakdown

Compostable items create nutrient-rich fertilizer prized by landscapers and gardeners.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Get a free composting bucket:

Environmental Health and

Sustainability Office

City Hall, 2nd Floor

130 S. Galena St.


Compost Drop-off:

Pitkin County Solid Waste Center

Highway 82

Mile marker 32

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Last Tuesday, I took out the trash. This time, though, I noticed that the plastic ties didn’t strain under the weight of an overstuffed garbage bag. In fact, the bag was only about half full. And it didn’t reek of rotting food.

This wasn’t because I had been out of town. Or because I ate every meal out. Or because I was on a hunger strike or detox regimen. I did none of those things. Nope. I just started composting.

Around Earth Day — April 23 — I picked up a free composting bucket from City Hall. “The average person produces four and a half pounds of waste per day, probably lower in Aspen,” says Liz O’Connell, the city of Aspen’s waste reduction and environmental health specialist. “Of that, about 50 percent is compostable.”

With a little care, this organic matter — produce scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, tea bags; food-soiled paper products like napkins and grease-stained pizza boxes; and grasses, leaves, and flowers — will break down into nutrient-rich fertilizer prized by landscapers and gardeners.

To encourage folks to separate their compostable waste from materials that will not decompose naturally over time (Styrofoam, foil, rubber, plastic wrap, pet waste), Aspen’s Environmental Health and Sustainability Office has partnered with the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center (the landfill off Highway 82, mile marker 32) to offer residents free compost collection buckets.

O’Connell makes a strong argument for why we should care about reducing the trash we send to our landfill. In the long run, it’s cheaper to use a curbside composting service — about $4.50 per month from three independent contactors; free if you drop it yourself — than traditional garbage collection. Composting is environmentally responsible, not only because space on Earth is limited, but because landfills create toxic methane gas, a greenhouse emission an estimated 21 times more potent than CO2. Certain states and cities — Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York City, Portland, San Francisco — have banned food waste from commercial generators from going to landfills at all. In Aspen, compost travels only about eight miles, round-trip. Contrast that with recycling, which journeys an average 7,000 miles and is without tangible local benefits.

Once dumped at the facility, compost is heated to 160-180 degrees. After 60 to 90 days, samples are sent to a lab for FDA inspection. The landfill then sells the finished compost back to the community, for about $12 per cubic yard. Last year, the nonprofit Independence Pass Foundation used tons of compost soil in a major reseeding project.

Sure, extra effort is involved in composting, but I found it easy to get into the groove. I stash the six-gallon composting bucket next to garbage and recycling bins in my kitchen, and I collect food scraps in a small bowl on my countertop when I make meals. (This takes 20 extra seconds, tops, to rinse the bowl after transferring scraps.) The bucket lid seals tight with zero smell, and may be lined compostable bags made of cornstarch for mess-free disposal. (Bags are available at City Market and Clark’s Market; about $7 for a box of 25.)

“We’ve had a steady stream of residents take advantage of this offer,” O’Connell says. “A very small percentage of people who compost do it because they want to garden. Most do it for the environmental impact.”

After screening the Jeremy Irons-produced documentary “Trashed” at the Wheeler Opera House in March, O’Connell fielded calls from numerous chefs and restaurant managers interested in composting. (An estimated 60 to 70 percent of restaurant waste is compostable.) The most successful so far have been hotels, such as the Limelight, Sky and Aspen Meadows; smaller venues like Ryno’s and the Red Onion hope to join, but struggle with space limitations in shared alleyways.

O’Connell calls Aspen Skiing Co. “a model of how successful composting can be at the commercial level.” 2013/14 marks the fourth season of composting at Bumps Restaurant, and the second season at the Cliffhouse, both at Buttermilk Mountain.

“Bumps was the first cafeteria restaurant in the valley to bring composting into the dining room,” says Henrietta Oliver, general manager of Skico on-mountain dining. In Snowmass, Two Creeks Café composts and Elk Camp begins this summer. Oliver anticipates that all Skico restaurants will use special composting dumpsters within two years.

“It started in the kitchen,” Oliver says. “What was amazing was when we moved (composting) into the dining room at Bumps, it tripled. When you move to compostable straws and lids, the amount of compost is enormous.” She pauses. “It’s about 25 to 20 percent more expensive than purchasing non-compostable products, but as a company we pride ourselves on being environmental stewards. It’s about walking the talk.”

Meanwhile, Jill Radel is urging her neighbors in a Brush Creek multi-family residential complex to get with the program.

“I started composting because I am a wannabe, try-to-be gardener,” says Radel, who contacted the housing board and sent letters to homeowners to drum up interest. Now, the Brush Creek Homeowners Association has 96-gallon containers in each of its dumpsters to collect household compostable material. (22-gallon bear-proof containers are also available for residents.)

“The benefits are numerous,” Radel says. “We keep our compostable waste in the valley, it is not being hauled to Denver or further. We are trying to reduce our carbon footprint every way we can. Eventually we hope to have the entire subdivision composting. That would be a great success story.”

On my inaugural run to the landfill to dump my first bucket of compost, I stumbled upon a composting seminar led by Pitkin County Solid Waste Center manager Cathy Hall. About a dozen people were there, asking questions.

“We’re seeing a lot more people (compost),” Hall says. “In Pitkin County, we keep 60 percent of materials that could go in the landfill out. The landfill is slowly changing.”

This is good news to O’Connell. “When the landfill closes, our trash rates will most likely double, if not triple!” she says, estimating that Pitkin County has 25 years left at our current rate. “Let’s not dump problems on the next generation. Composting is a testament to the value our community places on health.”

What are you doing in the kitchen?

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