Aspen moving toward prohibiting food waste in landfill
Organics waste diversion program supported by Aspen City Council
Aspen City Council agreed on Monday to implement a program that will prohibit food in landfill trash and recycling centers, as well as spending as much as $700,000 to carry out the new law and directing staff to pursue new funding sources to offset the costs.
The move, decided in a work session, is part of council’s “Race to Zero” agreement, and includes reducing organic material going to the landfill by 25% by 2025 and 100% by 2050, along with 70% diversion of all waste from the landfill by 2050 in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The new law, which must be approved by ordinance, would not take effect for a year and would affect only the commercial sector at first.
“The restaurants produce most of the food waste that we generate here in Aspen,” said Liz Chapman, senior environmental health specialist for the city.
The 12-month grace period will allow city staff to train and equip businesses, as well as allow time to receive needed equipment with the current constraints on the global supply chain.
Council members said they’d like to have incremental steps and incentives for restaurants to divert food more quickly than a year’s time.
“I’m thinking about intermediate steps, because if somebody tells me to do something like filing my taxes, I might not start until 11 months and two weeks,” said Councilwoman Rachel Richards. “I would be a little nervous about having a lot of things wait until the last minute. …”
The prohibition of waste in the landfill will slowly expand over the next 10 years to the entire town, according to Chapman.
“This will allow city staff to keep up with education, monitoring and enforcement,” she wrote in an email prior to Monday’s meeting. “It will allow the community to slowly adapt to a new way of dealing with waste, and it will allow the organics hauling companies to slowly add the trucks and staff they need to keep up with an expanding demand.”
Council also agreed on Monday to allocate $100,000 to make the waste specialist position full time rather than the current part-time status. That individual is Ainsley Brosnan-Smith, who works in the city’s environmental health and sustainability department.
Council agreed that position is necessary to administer the program and for long-term planning.
Elected officials were reluctant to approve the other $100,000 additional staffing request made by Chapman to reinstate an environmental ranger position that was created more than a decade ago but was discontinued.
Council held off on the decision until it receives a financial update on the city’s budget scheduled for March 7.
Chapman said enforcing current recycling rules and securing trash is already a challenge, and adding this program will just put more stress on current resources.
“We need additional staff if we are going to make this organics diversion increase successful and not create more problems than we’ve already had,” she said. “We cannot keep up with it as it stands.”
If formally adopted, up to $500,000 will be spent to subsidize the costs for organic collection, since restaurauters who were polled in a survey conducted in recent months said their main concern would be the financial burden placed on them.
Only 17 restaurants responded to the survey, even though city officials reached out to 84 of them three times via email and followed up with 67 of them in person, according to Chapman.
“It is very difficult for that sector of our community to make time to communicate with us,” she wrote in an email.
Brosnan-Smith said there are 102 restaurants in Aspen that don’t divert their organic material.
“That means all of their food waste is being thrown away,” she said. “We were trying to target those 102 restaurants to get their feedback on challenges they face and barriers to waste reduction.”
For those who did respond to the survey, they indicated that they were interested in the city writing legislation to increase participation but also are concerned about wildlife safety.
Pitkin County provides for free all-metal bear-proof organic collection containers to any business, or HOA, when they subscribe to an organic collection service.
Despite that support, participation has stagnated and demonstrates voluntary participation is not an effective or sufficiently fast way to achieve council’s adopted waste goals, according to Chapman.
The most common barriers cited by restaurants in the survey were lack of space and the increased cost to implement a new diversion program, with several respondents suggesting that the city provide some financial incentives to businesses to increase participation.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he wants to minimize impacts to the restaurants.
“I’m really concerned about the economic impact it’s going to have on restaurants, so I’d really like to tie the prohibition on food waste to some kind of incentives, to somehow reward them or mitigate or minimize the impacts on the restaurants,” he said.
Costs to businesses could be neutral if their volume of trash is reduced through organics diversion, Chapman noted.
That can be said for businesses reducing waste through inventory control or food donation, she added.
Over the years, the city has increased the diversion of organic material to compost from zero to 700 tons a year through a variety of voluntary policies, programs and incentives.
However, that’s only diverting 3% or 4% of organic material found in the municipal waste stream, which is below the 37% of organic material identified in the 2015 composition study of municipal solid waste in Aspen, according to Chapman and Brosnan-Smith.
Staff estimates 10% of the retail food sector in Aspen is currently diverting organic material to the composting facility at the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center; national studies indicate that between 60% and 80% of a retail food businesses waste is organic.
Voluntary participation in diversion programs does not result in capturing the maximum potential of divertible materials, as is evident in the recycling rate in Aspen having plateaued over the past 10 years. Educating the community and monitoring for compliance are the most straightforward when compared to mandating businesses subscribe to an organic collection service, according to city officials.
Municipalities that have mandated subscription to an organic collection service have experienced contamination levels so high that the organic loads are frequently landfilled instead of composted, Champan said.
Currently, waste programs, equipment and staffing are paid for with general fund money, and the majority of council agreed that the additional costs should be paid for out of that pot for the next one or two years while staff investigates a dedicated funding source.
Council appeared to favor a new tax rather than a fee built into the land use code as it relates to development.
“I would like to see messaging about environmental stewardship and awareness and behavioral modification voluntarily to come into higher compliance, to make people feel that are part of a solution instead of just a part of the problem,” Hauenstein said. “I just generally don’t like imposing a fee on somebody that’s not a direct contributor to the problem.”
Mayor Torre said he’d like to see more information about a tax increase.
“I don’t have enough information or knowledge in this area to suggest a path at this time,” he said. “I will say that I feel that this is a responsibility that comes down to each one of us, and I’m looking for equitability and sharing impact costs, but I do think this is something that our monies do need to go toward to supporting.”
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