Report: Local government investment is important to meet waste diversion goals

Three Steamboat Springs restaurants have pledged to participate in a composting pilot project that has so far diverted 1,308 gallons of food waste.
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Increasing the ability to divert organics from Routt County landfills will be critical to meeting local climate goals, and significant change may require government involvement, according to a study commissioned by Routt County and Steamboat Springs.

Study findings show that Routt County lags other mountain communities in terms of waste diversion, and that local governments are doing little to encourage residents to compost their organic waste.

“Our experience is that organics recovery won’t increase significantly – you won’t get composting or any of those things – without the government taking a more active role,” said Peter Engel, project manager at Kessler Consulting Inc., one of the companies behind the study.

Only 9% of Routt County’s waste is currently diverted from a landfill, which is low compared to the diversion rate of 38% in Pitkin County and 30% in Eagle County. The 9% mark is well below the goal of 85% waste diversion by 2050 set out in Routt County’s Climate Action Plan. Another objective of the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector by 69%.

Engel’s company, which has partnered with Denver-based environmental consulting firm LBA Associates Inc., focuses on organics, recycling and solid waste management for Colorado governments. The two companies also worked on the Steamboat Recycling Study which was presented to City Council earlier this year.

Engel said recycling organics comes in three main forms: food, yard and wood waste. The study found that Routt County does very well on wood waste by diverting more than 75%, but a large majority of food and yard waste is landfilled.

“Food and yard waste…those are your main opportunities to increase recovery,” Engel said.

The best way to prevent food waste is to feed more people, Engel said. This is done primarily in LiftUp Routt County, but is limited as a lot of the food scraps are inedible.

However, food waste can also be used to feed animals, and there are local partnerships where farmers use the grain from the brewing or distillation process to feed animals. Engel said there are opportunities to expand both of these practices.

But the biggest “bang for your buck” would come from a more robust composting program, Engel said. There are two local operations: Cowgirl Compost of Colorado and Twin Environmental.

“Each serves somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 residents and a small segment of the business community as well,” Engel said.

However, in total, less than two acres are devoted to turning this waste into compost.

Diversion of yard waste is even more limited, according to Engel. Besides a Christmas tree recycling program and some fall clean-up initiatives, most locally generated yard waste is landfilled, according to the study.

Overall, public awareness of organic waste diversion options is low, Engel said. The county also lacks the incentives to coax an increase in waste diversion and the mandates that would compel it. Capacity is also limited at the two local facilities.

Still, Engel and Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman said the county has a solid foundation to improve waste diversion through the Climate Action Plan Collaborative Council. The easiest way would be to focus on the biggest waste producers first.

“When we look at organics, we focus much more on the big food waste generators – restaurants, hotels, motels, grocery stores and, to a lesser extent, school cafeterias,” said Laura Bacheldor Adams of LBA Associates.

Sarah Jones, Director of Sustainability and Community Engagement for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. and a member of the climate collaboration, said the station is working to increase its waste diversion capabilities. It won’t be completed until next summer and will only divert food waste from the station, but Jones said it’s still a significant amount of waste and will only increase to as base area improvements are completed.

The report makes other recommendations, ranging from increasing public awareness of organic waste diversion options to local governments investing in a drop-off center to expand those options.

The county could also explore some sort of mandate, though there is currently no requirement to recycle in the unincorporated county, let alone divert organic waste.

“It seems clear to me that it’s not going to be Routt County coming out and doing anything,” Commissioner Beth Melton said. “It wouldn’t make much sense without working in partnership.”

Steamboat City Council is expected to receive a similar presentation on the report next week.

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