New goals could help clean up the state’s trashy record on waste.
Colorado diverts only 12 percent of its waste from the landfill, far below the national average of 34 percent, according to a recent report by Eco-Cycle, a Boulder-based nonprofit recycler.
By 2026, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment expects cities and counties to meet the national average. By 2036, the state health department wants to see 45 percent of waste diverted from state landfills. The goals will not be enforced, but they are intended to encourage greater recycling and composting, said Wolf Kray, an environmental protection specialist in the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division.
Composting food and yard waste could target a large portion of the waste stream and cut methane emissions.
To encourage composting, the state recently revised its rules for small-scale composting sites, Kray said.
Statewide, 50 percent of landfill waste is organic. In landfills, that waste turns into methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the atmosphere, said Kate Bailey, policy and research director at Eco-Cycle.
“Methane is like a thicker blanket,” she said.
When diverted, organic waste can be composted and sold for gardening and landscaping, which can offset the cost of diverting it.
In local landfills, about 37 percent of the waste is organic, according to an audit by the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.
Montezuma County Landfill Manager Shak Powers estimates about 21 tons of food waste is dumped in the landfill each week.
Colorado has fallen behind other states when it comes to recycling and composting, in part because landfills are cheap, Bailey said.
“Colorado has some of the cheapest landfills in the country,” she said.
Other states have tacked on fees to landfills to help fund recycling and acknowledge the cost of the pollution and the use of the land, she said.
To help divert food waste from the landfill, cities, including Boulder, have started curbside recycling program. Boulder diverts 40 percent of its waste from the landfill, while Durango diverts 30 percent, according to an Eco-Cycle report.
For Durango to start a curbside composting program that would mirror its single-stream recycling would be challenging, City Operations Director Levi Lloyd said.
Some cities compost food waste in open air rows, a process that is land-intensive and would be tough for the city to set up because of the price of land and the permitting process. Finding an appropriate location could also be tough because of the smell.
Once established, a composting program would likely require a new full-time department to manage it, Lloyd said.
“The cost recovery would be pretty difficult for us,” he said.
The Montezuma County Landfill has had the permits to compost food waste for about a year and accepts food waste from residents for free, Powers said.
It also is ready to accept food waste from haulers, including Waste Management and the city of Cortez, and they are looking into it, Powers said.
He called composting a “no-brainer” because organics are the largest portion of the waste stream and have the most immediate potential.
“We can produce a high-quality soil amendment that people want and need right here,” he said.
While large-scale composting in the region has not started in earnest, there are some successful smaller endeavors.
Table to Farm Compost, a local business, picks up food scraps from 150 residential customers and four restaurants in town, which equates to about 150 to 200 gallons of organic material a day, owner David Golden said.
Since launching in 2016, the company has grown steadily and operates within the city of Durango and Durango West II.
“I get a lot of people telling me they are really happy to be reducing their waste. ... They don’t have to take out the trash nearly as often,” he said.
Fort Lewis College uses an in-vessel composting system to process about 50 to 100 gallons of food waste per day, said Marty Pool, assistant coordinator at the Environmental Center.
“It does keep a lot of food out of the landfill, and then we, in turn, use that compost that we create on our campus garden and campus orchard,” he said.
If the community invested in a large-scale composting effort, it would take a lot to manage. Aside from the technical side, it would require community education, but there would be plenty of benefits, he said.
“I would love to see a communitywide effort down here. ... I have faith in Durangoans jumping on that bandwagon,” he said.