Aspen debuts composting of restaurant food waste
December 17, 2010
ASPEN – Two area restaurants are the inaugural participants in a new city of Aspen initiative to capture and recycle a long overlooked component of the community’s waste stream – food scraps.
Bumps, the base-area restaurant at Buttermilk, and the Snowmass Club’s food service operations began segregating food scraps and other compostable materials last weekend for a pilot program that will feature the debut of a giant, custom-made food grinder at the Pitkin County Landfill.
The grinder, purchased with a $94,000 state grant, is due to arrive in mid-January. It will hold 19 cubic yards of material, mixing and breaking it up into smaller pieces. Until it arrives, landfill operators will use other equipment to deal with the food and paper scraps produced by the fledgling program.
Food recycling is hardly new, and haulers in many communities pick up compostable materials, placed in separate bins, in the same way that haulers in Aspen currently collect recyclable containers, newspapers and garbage placed at the curb, according to Ashley Cantrell, environmental health specialist for the city.
But rather that start with a residential program, Aspen will focus first on its many restaurants, she said.
“We wanted to start with the restaurants because that’s our biggest bang for the buck,” she said. “About 30 percent of what we’re throwing away is compostable. At a restaurant, it’s up to 70 percent.”
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Cantrell knows this for a fact after she and landfill personnel undertook some messy scientific research in preparation for launching the program. Large trash compactors, hauled to the landfill from various establishments around town, were dumped onto a tarp so the contents could be sorted by hand and weighed.
According to Cantrell, 73 percent of the contents of one compactor were compostable. That’s material that doesn’t have to be buried with true garbage; separating it out will add to the operational life of the landfill.
Bumps and the Snowmass Club have been provided with separate bins inside their kitchens, where workers put the compostable material. Cantrell has worked with the staffs at both establishments, instructing participants – in Spanish and English – on what can and can’t go in the composting bins.
Both places were ideal choices for starting up composting programs because they have enough space outside for a separate Dumpster or compactor that is devoted to the food scraps and other appropriate waste. The logistics of composting at establishments with limited space in Aspen’s downtown alleyways may prove a bigger challenge.
At Bumps, general manager Henrietta Oliver said she’s been checking the composting bins regularly. So far, employees have been conscientiously putting in only the items that are suitable for composting, she said.
“I think the ease of it has surprised me – how it’s been embraced by all the employees as a positive thing,” she said.
Oliver is hoping the program results in a decrease in the restaurant’s trash-hauling costs.
The landfill charges less to haulers to drop off compostables than it does to dump trash there, so a restaurant that reduces its trash output could save money, Cantrell explained. Local haulers have agreed to pass on the savings to participating restaurants, she said.
Compostable material includes not only food scraps, including meat and bones, but also plain paper products such as paper plates and napkins, and cardboard items such as milk and egg cartons.
The no-nos include metals, glass, Styrofoam, plastic-coated plates and cups, and liquids. Food liquids are compostable, but it makes more sense to put them down the drain, given that they’re messy and heavy, Cantrell said. Haulers pay by weight to drop off loads at the landfill.
The landfill already composts materials such as yard waste and wood chips, mixing them with “biosolids” from the city sanitation plant to produce compost – a nutrient-rich loam that is used as a soil additive. It will sell for $34 per cubic yard starting next year. The food waste will be mixed in with the other materials in the composting operation.
Cantrell hopes to sign on another restaurant or two for the program this winter, and see it swell to a dozen or so participants next summer. City Market, once it’s done with its remodeling project, wants to get involved, as well, she said.
Once enough restaurants join the program, it will make economic sense for a hauler to establish a new route, just to pick up the compostable waste, according to Cantrell.
The ultimate goal, of course, is a community-wide composting program that involves both restaurants and residents.
Aspen’s black bear population, which has been known to raid the trash, could be a complicating factor, Cantrell conceded, but all of the food waste that would be diverted from the garbage is going into containers in alleyways now anyway. Keeping compostables locked up, in bear-proof containers, will be as critical as securing garbage is presently, she said.
“We’ll just have to be more vigilant,” she said.