Elizabeth Milias: Compost this!

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

The city of Aspen is driven by a noble sense of “leading the way.” Be it environmental stewardship, subsidized housing or simply the art of virtue-signaling, the belief that other communities look to Aspen as a shining example to be emulated is a driving force in local governmental decision-making. As our new electeds prepare for their goal-setting retreat, the city’s department of environmental health and sustainability recently presented them with some food for thought, specifically appealing to their appetites for more policies, codes and regulations.

According to staff, despite Aspen’s notable efforts to address climate change and reduce waste, our voluntary climate and waste reduction programs to date have been deemed insufficient to achieve the community’s and council’s ambitious goals. While we have reduced our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 20% since 2004, this is less than the average decrease compared to “other leading cities.” A more renewable electricity grid, the result of Aspen Electric becoming 100% renewable and Holy Cross Energy becoming 40% renewable with the commitment to get to 100% by 2030, has driven this decline, however, local voluntary programs have kept things stable but have not yielded the necessary reductions. Apparently the community is set to fall dramatically short of its 2050 GHG reduction targets, even if our electricity supply becomes entirely renewable.

The next eight years have been deemed critical to reducing GHG emissions globally, and in the same timeframe, Aspen must reduce waste to close to zero in order to prolong the life of the Pitkin County landfill. At current rates, we’re told the landfill will be full and unusable by 2030. Given that 58% of the material in the landfill comes from construction activity and 79% of that is generated within the city of Aspen, clearly diversion, deconstruction and recycling of such materials must be stepped up. But ostensibly this alone will not get it done. Aspen now needs an additional, bold commitment to “increased organics diversion” to meet its GHG reduction goals.

Today, approximately 5% of Aspen residents and 20% of restaurants choose to divert compost, which is comparable to what was happening in Fort Collins, Boulder, San Francisco and Portland before they enacted composting mandates. This is exactly what the city has in mind, and staff is pressing council to transition our long-standing voluntary programs into “high impact solutions” through stringent new policies and regulations. Goodbye carrot, hello stick. The belief is that a more aggressive and mandated approach to composting will “prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change” while protecting the health and quality of life of all residents, reduce methane emissions from the landfill and divert food waste from trash dumpsters that attracts wildlife.

Enter SCRAPS, the city of Aspen’s program to assist residents and businesses in compost collection. Any Aspen resident can pick up a free 6.5 gallon bucket at the Old Powerhouse building or at the landfill. Then, through a $18/month subscription with a dedicated compost hauler, organic household waste including egg shells, coffee grounds and food scraps will be taken to the solid waste center at the county dump, added to the steaming piles of compost there and eventually sold as a soil amendment.

Assuming that environmental health gets its way and council enacts the bold environmental actions including mandated composting for both the commercial and residential sectors, you too will need to master the basics. According to Forbes, even if you live in a small apartment you can easily create a compost pile. Start with the container. I recommend using the free one from the city, but you can also do it yourself. Use a large plastic container. Poke holes in it for water to drain. Place a tray beneath the container to catch the drainage. Keep the compost pile inside or outside of your apartment in a cool place where it gets plenty of sun. Prep the container by soaking strips of newspaper in water and coating the bottom. Pour soil over the paper and add worms, one pound of worms for every square foot of container space. Then toss in your scraps. Each time you add scraps, cover the mélange with more soaked paper strips. This will help trap odors. Over time, the contents will decompose and you can use the soil in your garden. But theoretically, you’ll be sending it off weekly to the landfill. Either way, sounds exactly like what you want in your kitchen, right?

I get it. We have to address our aging landfill. But our aggressive GHG emission goals might warrant revisiting if we are serious about meeting them. The city should absolutely target GHG reductions through electric vehicles in its fleet as well as with incentives for transit and school buses and consumer electric vehicles. Improved construction and demolition waste diversion will substantively impact our shrinking landfill capacity. And the time may be right for building code improvements that support electrification and energy efficiency. However, mandated residential composting is simply a step too far. It’s one thing to do it voluntarily, or to offer incentives, but something else entirely to compel residents and tourists alike to ferment food waste in their own homes.

The worst GHG emissions are coming from the unprecedented traffic into and out of Aspen. Why aren’t we addressing that first? Contact