Pitkin County’s composting program is booming. In 2021, the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center recorded its highest composting level in the past six years, and it’s likely that the trend will continue to grow.

In Aspen, the composting surge is almost entirely driven by an increased participation from residents, while less than 10% of the restaurants in Aspen are composting their organic waste, said Ainsley Brosnan-Smith, Aspen’s waste-reduction specialist. 

“From 2015 to 2017, we got restaurants on board, [but] we’ve added very few restaurants since 2017,” said Liz Chapman, Aspen’s senior waste and environmental health specialist.

Aspen is working on drafting an organic waste-diversion ordinance to ban food waste from landfills and recycling centers. This will help to meet the city’s “race to zero” waste goals that include reducing the amount of organic material buried in the landfill by 25% by 2025 and by 100% by 2050. 

“We’re starting with the restaurant sector,” said Brosnan-Smith. “They’re the ones that are producing the most compost or organic waste.”

Pitkin County’s recycling and composting rates are the second highest in the state in 2020, with 38% of total residential and commercial waste stream — right behind Boulder County, according to the 2021 State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado by Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG. But the report found that Colorado is one of the 20 most wasteful states in the country, with a statewide recycling and composting rate of about 15% in 2020 compared with the national rate of 32%. 

Aspen arrived in sixth position in the state for the municipality’s recycling and composting rates, with 32% of residential and commercial waste being recycled or composted.

In 2021, the Pitkin County landfill composted 14,295 tons of waste, the highest amount recorded since 2015, according to Pitkin County Solid Waste Center data shared with Aspen Journalism. It’s a 19.5% increase from 2020’s 11,961 tons and an 11.7% increase from 2019’s 12,799 tons, the previous record. The amount of composted waste increased by 41.5% between 2015 and 2021.

“We’re the second-largest [composting] facility in the state,” said Cathy Hall, director of the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center. 

The Scraps composting program, led by the city and the county, assists residents and businesses in compost collection by providing free containers and education. It has helped boost the popularity of the program that diverts food waste and other organic materials from the landfill to the composting facility. More outreach started after a study done in 2016 showed that organics represented 36% of the buried waste at the Pitkin County landfill in 2015.

In 2021, the Pitkin County landfill composted more than 14,000 tons of waste, the highest amount since 2015. The Scraps composting program, led by the city and the county, has helped boost the popularity of the composting program, which diverts food waste and other organic materials from the landfill to the composting facility. Credit: Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

When food waste gets buried in landfills, it releases methane, increases greenhouse gas emissions and may create toxins within the landfill that can contaminate nearby soils and water. According to a November 2021 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which fuel climate change and increase temperatures.

Currently, two private haulers, Mountain Waste and Evergreen Zero Waste, pick up compost from residential and commercial customers. They bring it to the landfill where it gets mixed with wood chips, yard waste and biosolid. It’s then put into piles, or windrows, that will start heating up to about 132 degrees. The entire composting process takes about six months.

Aspen data, which uses haulers’ reports, estimates that about 655 tons of compost came from Aspen in 2021. The amount of compost from Aspen jumped from about 345 tons in 2017 to 583 tons in 2018. It peaked in 2019 with approximately 698 tons of compost, according to the city’s estimates. 

The county landfill sells its 25-pound bags of compost — at $5.50 each — mostly to landscapers and homeowners. 

“It’s the best diversion you can do,” Hall said. “It’s done here, and it stays local and goes out local.”

Last year, the landfill made $160,000 from compost sales, which is uncommon because most composting facilities struggle to offset the equipment and labor costs.

Composting has several obstacles to overcome, including cost; the lack of space for restaurants in downtown Aspen, with its narrow alleyways, to expand waste sorting; and the perception of decaying food. Another challenge with composting in the Roaring Fork Valley is keeping food waste from bears, Chapman said. 

Municipal solid waste rates at landfill appear stable

Although composting has grown in recent years, municipal solid waste (MSW) — made up of residential and commercial waste — has slightly increased and has overall remained steady since 2015. Compost may have been a useful tool in preventing a surge in residential waste as the pandemic created more demand for housing, but it wasn’t the main contributor. 

“Compost is this huge boom, but when you look at it in the context of how much material, it’s not making a difference because we’re at best diverging 4% [in Aspen],” Chapman said. “It has the potential to bring [MSW] dramatically down if we were to divert the potential 40% that we know could be diverted through compost.”  

More than 57,700 tons of waste was sent to the Pitkin County landfill in 2021, including about 26,414 tons of MSW and 31,311 tons of construction and demolition waste. That’s up from 2020, when 24,027 tons of MSW was sent to the landfill, and from 2019, with 25,305 tons of MSW.

Landfill loaders compact household trash at the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center. About 26,400 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) was buried in the landfill in 2021. That is up from 2020, when about 24,000 tons of MSW was sent to the landfill and up from 25,300 tons of solid waste being landfilled in 2019. Credit: Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

When COVID-19 hit, businesses, including restaurants, shut down, producing less solid and organic waste than usual. “Not only were the restaurants closed down the longest of all the businesses, but when they opened up, they opened up at lower capacity,” Chapman said.

Aspen residents and businesses generated 16,074 tons of municipal solid waste in 2021, down from 17,422 tons in 2020 and down from 18,384 tons in 2019, according to city estimates. About 80% of the waste produced in Aspen is generated by businesses, Chapman said. 

The amount of landfilled waste is getting back to pre-pandemic levels. 2016 saw 26,645 tons of MSW sent to the landfill, followed by 27,117 tons in 2017.

But these figures don’t capture the whole picture, Chapman said. 

She said that not all material generated in Pitkin County is taken to its landfill. 

Pitkin County started requiring curbside recycling in 2019, which led Aspen to scale back the number of drop-off locations in town. Most of the recycling is now being picked up by private haulers that use their own transfer stations downvalley, without ever crossing the scales of the Pitkin County landfill. 

This change, which makes recycling easier and more convenient for residents, should have encouraged people to recycle more, but Chapman and Brosnan-Smith said that it wasn’t the trend observed in Aspen.

Recycling in Aspen dropped from about 6,757 tons in 2018 to 6,355 tons in 2019 to 5,967 tons in 2020, according to city estimates.

“We have a lot of people that don’t live here for the full year, so they might not even contract with a hauler to remove their waste, so they are just going to find a trash can and throw everything away at the end of their vacation,” Brosnan-Smith said. 

She said multifamily housing units have a high contamination rate as sometimes residents may not recycle properly. “When there’s more than 10% trash in the recycling, it all gets thrown away because there’s no one at the end of the day picking all the trash out,” Brosnan-Smith said.

Chapman said there has been a lot of skepticism around recycling after China decided in 2018 to refuse to import plastic waste that is mixed with trash from foreign countries, including the U.S. Before 2018, most plastic waste was sent to China to be either recycled or dumped in landfills when recycling wasn’t possible. Once the ban was passed and the U.S. couldn’t send their plastic waste to China anymore, the amount of plastic being landfilled in the U.S. increased.

Construction and demolition constitute more than half of county landfill’s waste

Construction and demolition (C&D) waste represented about 54% of the landfill waste in 2021. The national average is 20%, according to Hall. 

In 2021, 31,312 tons of C&D debris were sent to the Pitkin County landfill. That’s close to 5,000 tons more than municipal solid waste. It’s also up from 25,444 tons in 2020 and 30,623 tons in 2019. C&D debris varies by the number of projects in town. In 2017, C&D waste peaked at 39,474 tons — the same year that the W Hotel was being rebuilt on the site of the former Sky Hotel in Aspen, Hall said. 

“This year, Lift 1 — all that redevelopment at the base of Aspen Mountain is supposed to be breaking loose, so I think we’re going to see a big year,” Hall said. “But then that’s going to balance out [as] Aspen now has a moratorium on construction.” 

But when C&D debris represents more than half of the waste disposed of in a landfill — with numbers that could keep growing — it leads to an additional set of concerns and issues. 

“Construction waste is a lot harder on equipment. We don’t get the compaction as high as regular household trash, so that’s filling up our space a lot faster,” Hall said. “That’s why we built the expansion.”

Last year, the landfill built a 5-acre expansion — at a cost of about $2 million — that added about six more years to the life of the landfill, which only had two years of life remaining before the expansion. Discussions are ongoing about a second extension that would increase the landfill’s life by another 20 to 50 years.

woman looking at a landfill map
Pitkin County Solid Waste Center last year built a 5-acre expansion that added about six more years to the life of the landfill. Cathy Hall, landfill director, said more than half of the landfill is filled by construction and demolition debris, which consumes more space than household trash. Credit: Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

“Based on the permit activity and conversations I have had with developers, contractors, and waste haulers, I believe a significant portion of C&D waste is going to the South Canyon Landfill (west of Glenwood Springs),” wrote Chapman. “Also, some of the larger projects grind up the waste and take it to the landfill to be used as ‘alternative daily cover’ (ADC), and this is considered recycling, even though the material is buried in the landfill.”

The Pitkin County Solid Waste Center charges $198.25 per ton for unsorted construction and demolition waste, while South Canyon Landfill charges $115 per ton brought from outside Garfield County.

“I have been told entire buildings have been taken to South Canyon due to this price difference,” Chapman wrote. 

A 2018 Northwest Colorado Waste Diversion study backs up Chapman. “Pitkin County has increased the price of C&D disposal, so much of Pitkin’s C&D is sent to the South Canyon Landfill instead. South Canyon incentivizes contractors to pre-sort C&D by offering price breaks for items such as clean fill, wood and metal. But some contractors still opt to not sort their C&D,” the report said.

Hall said the cost of transportation from Aspen to Glenwood Springs should offset the price difference and encourage contractors, developers and waste haulers to keep sending their construction and demolition waste to the Pitkin County landfill. 

Liz Mauro, South Canyon Landfill manager, wrote that they have not noticed any significant increase in C&D waste coming to South Canyon from Pitkin County.

South Canyon Landfill offers another look at waste management in valley

The amount of waste being landfilled at South Canyon dropped by about 20% since 2013 but has remained stable since 2015. Meanwhile, recycling has more than doubled since 2015.

In 2021, 38,456 tons of municipal and construction waste was landfilled, including 13,784 tons of construction waste — about one-third of the landfilled waste.

Municipal solid waste coming to the landfill has dropped a little in the period from 2013 to 2021, Mauro said, but she added they don’t know whether that is due to an actual decrease in waste or whether haulers are taking more municipal solid waste to other landfills, including Rifle and Eagle.

In 2020, 38,074 tons of waste was buried at South Canyon Landfill, including 13,671 tons of C&D waste. Although construction waste increased between 2020 and 2021, it represented the same share of total landfill waste. 

“In 2013, 10,000 tons of that landfilled waste was contaminated soil mostly from oil & gas extraction activities,” Mauro wrote in an email. “The amount of contaminated soil coming in gradually decreased as O&G activity decreased from 2013 to 2018 and is now usually less than 1,500 tons per year.” 

Construction waste at the South Canyon Landfill represents about half the construction waste sent to the Pitkin County landfill.

In 2021, about 14,000 tons were recycled, including composting, traditional recycling, soil recycling and concrete recycling, Mauro wrote. Among the recycled tons, 9,061 were composted in 2021, which represents 64.5% of recycling. In 2020, 10,683 tons were composted among the 15,895 recycled tons. That’s about 67%. 

Mauro said most of the increase in recycling is due to increased diversion of brush, leaves, grass and manure into the compost operation. 

“In 2020, many people were concerned about the fire danger and had more time at home due to COVID,” Mauro wrote. “So, what we saw locally was a lot of brush clearing and yard maintenance which was then brought to the landfill to be composted. ” 

In 2017, organics represented 29% of the waste in 2017 sent to the South Canyon Landfill, according to the 2018 study. “While the South Canyon Landfill compost facility accepts food waste, according to facility personnel, it receives very little.”

“There is no such thing as ‘away,’” Mauro wrote. “When we throw our garbage away, we are just putting it somewhere else for a while. The costs of this ‘throw away’ approach is both immediate due to the costs of fuel and labor to move the trash around, and long-term due to the costs of mitigating pollution caused by the trash, and the cost to continue to mine or grow more resources to make more products.”

Making the switch to composting organics rather than trashing them is not as hard as it seems, Mauro said. “And [it] is very rewarding when you see the end result.”

AAspen Journalism covers data and the environment in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 15 edition of The Aspen Times.

Laurine Lassalle is Aspen Journalism’s data desk editor, where she works to catalogue and analyze local public data. She also heads our our “Tracking the Curve” project, documenting COVID-19 in Pitkin,...