Gunnison County looking for large-scale composting solutions

A mixture of both progress and setbacks

By Katherine Nettles

Despite a big step forward on the Western Colorado University campus in terms of composting, the Gunnison Valley in general continues to struggle with what local residents expect should be an easy and sustainable practice for the county.

Western Colorado University is set to begin processing up to 460 gallons of food waste per week this fall semester, as it puts the finishing touches on a new A900 Rocket composting system and takes its sustainability efforts up a notch.

Yet even as Western celebrates the progress it is making on this front, other entities in Gunnison County are problem-shooting a lack of options for processing their own food waste. Gunnison County’s only commercial composting operator discontinued service last winter, but new interests from Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) and Sustainable CB might still pave the way for future options.

Western was awarded a $139,690 grant in 2018 to expand its recycling program through the Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity grant program, administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE). The A900 Rocket and accompanying structures such as a roof and enclosure are nearing completion and Western’s sustainability team expects it to be in full operation by the time classes start at the end of August. Nathan King, director of sustainability at Western, says a tech from the vendor Food Waste Experts will be on site in early August to ensure the composter is ready to go.

“It will be good to start a batch or two before the semester starts,” King said. He estimates that Western’s dining halls generate about 25 gallons of compostable waste per day that can now be diverted. “So we’re excited to be in the final stages of getting everything up and ready to go.”

Western’s expanded program comes at a time when composting in the rest of Gunnison County is limited. Guerilla Composting, which provided pick-up to several commercial businesses and residents in the north valley, ceased operations late this past winter. Guerilla Composting owner Julie Donahue says this was because the needs of the community were exceeding her capacity. In an e-mail to the Crested Butte News, she describes the challenge of collecting, processing and storing the valley’s food scraps.

“During high season I collected over a ton of food waste a week. In two years of operations I collected over 200,000 pounds of food scraps from our local restaurants, inns and residents,” writes Donahue. “This may seem like a lot, but compared to the numbers of municipal and other large-scale programs, this is a minuscule quantity. The program was seeing ever-consistent growth when I discontinued service. With so much interest and the active participants already creating so much food waste, I was outgrowing the spaces I already had and the capacity I could handle, both physically and fiscally.”

Composting is regulated by the CDPHE, and Guerilla Composting was registered as a “Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Composting Facility.” This designation meant it was limited to a specific amount of active compost at an address, among other regulations. Guerilla Composting had two sites and addresses, one just south of Crested Butte South and one in Gunnison, and could not keep up.

“With just myself, an employee and access to a tractor to collect the compost, turn the windrows every five days and remove the trash and ‘compostable’ products that do not biodegrade in a backyard composting system, we didn’t have the manpower to keep it up and Guerilla Composting was losing financially. A greater quantity requires more manpower, more machinery, more vehicles and trailers and constant upkeep,” explains Donahue.

Another factor, she says, is the rural nature of the area. “Providing a service to a low-density, highly dispersed community is time consuming and not energy efficient.”

A municipal program on the horizon?

Donahue believes the best way to continue to compost in our valley is through a municipal composting program, which could be integrated into weekly waste pickups through Waste Management, Golden Eagle or another service.

“If our county can establish a Class 4 composting facility we can collect all manner of organics, including sludges, oils, food, agricultural products, bio solids, etc. I think it is important that we consider that the majority of organics produced in our community are not food scraps,” Donahue points out.

Sustainable CB, Crested Butte Mountain Resort and many of the businesses that formerly enlisted Guerrilla Composting are also looking for solutions.

There appears to be a distinct possibility that Vail Resorts’ 2018 acquisition of CBMR could prove to be the food waste game-changer. The international ski area giant has pledged a Zero Waste Goal by 2030 for its resorts, and is partnering locally with Boulder-based Eco Products to address the landfill diversion aspect. As Eco Products researches options for commercial composting, King says CBMR has been discussing the potential for future partnerships with the Western campus, although no large-scale set-ups like what they would need are in sight as of yet.

“We do think we’ll have the ability to increase potential partnerships,” says King. This could include local schools and Mountain Roots.

Shay Bannister, community outreach coordinator for Sustainable CB, says earlier this summer Sustainable CB received an e-mail from Eco Products headquarters inquiring about larger-scale composting options.

“I told the Eco Products rep that there is a huge need in our community for something like this, and that Sustainable CB along with other community leaders want to be at the table for this discussion. The Eco Products rep was very receptive to all this, and wanted me to keep him updated on these community conversations,” says Bannister.

Sustainable CB is working to schedule a meeting with Eco Products, Vail Resorts and other stakeholders about creating a commercial composting facility in the future here.

“Many community folks and businesses utilized Guerilla Composting, and the demand for composting is high for residential, restaurants and yard debris. Many landscaping companies have to take their yard debris to Gunnison. How is that sustainable? Any materials such as Eco Products’ materials that are ‘compostable’ have to be composted in a proper commercial composting facility. In our case right now, all off these products have to be put in the trash bin in our community since we lack a proper facility. So although businesses are trying to move away from traditional single-use waste items and be more eco-conscious— at the end of the day everything is still going into the landfill. If we had a commercial composting facility here, it would be a huge game-changer,” concludes Bannister.

An option Donahue believes Vail and others may be looking at is an anaerobic digester, which works without oxygen and can also be used for renewable energy generation.

“This is a wonderful idea, especially if we can immediately integrate the production of biofuel and work directly with RTA to fund the project and provide biofuel to run the growing fleet of bio buses,” says Donahue. “I believe another stakeholder would be the county’s wastewater treatment plants. A digester would also take up much less space and the impact from heavy machinery would be smaller.”

Donahue points to other issues at play, such as social barriers and public perception.

Apart from the huge costs for the land, permits, implementation and oversight of establishing a facility that can handle food waste economically, Donahue says community support is vital.

“One of the greater setbacks I fear from the establishment of one of these amazing facilities is a very picky community. Homeowners in Crested Butte love to complain and a common trend is composting facilities being shut down due to odor complaints,” Donahue writes.

For now, Donahue thinks it is urgent to establish—and fund—a program in a location with higher population densities, where much more waste is created. She suggests, “I think that our first goal should be properly outfitting the wastewater facilities with more space to compost the bio solids. They are handling over a million pounds of biosolids a year just in Crested Butte and are composting just over half of it.”

After a Sustainable CB board meeting on July 17, Bannister said that while Eco-Products has an interest in creating commercial composting here in Crested Butte, “They are still working on pinning down a Vail/CBMR person to meet with about this.”

While Bannister says this is slightly disappointing, he said, “Composting is an importantt issue for many in our community, and we cannot wait on Vail to make it happen because that may be 2030… As a stakeholder in the Climate Action Plan, we are willing to spearhead this dialogue in our community and will be reaching out to other community leaders.”

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