Whole Foods Market prides itself on its ecofriendly initiatives. The grocery giant composts as much of its waste as possible, including paper materials and plastic bags labeled as biodegradable.
But this year, Summit County is transitioning businesses that use its composting center to stricter standards, starting with the Frisco grocery store.
That means that until the store can better educate its employees and customers, none of its waste is going to the county’s compost operations, not even food scraps.
“Right now the compost is going to the landfill, unfortunately,” said Matty Snyder, the employee at Whole Foods charged with solving the problem.
Turns out that, at least here, manufactured materials labeled as compostable or biodegradable are actually just trash.
Environmental conditions in the Colorado mountains, such as temperature, humidity, precipiation and elevation, make composting more difficult, said Aaron Byrne, the county’s solid waste director. At the same time, he added, large-scale operations across the country are having problems getting manufactured compostables to break down.
Summit County may be on the cusp of a nationwide trend.
“We see this huge source of contamination,” Byrne said. Shredded pieces of plastic that pass through the county’s 13-week composting process devalue the final compost product the county creates and sells to landscapers and gardeners and threatens local watersheds.
Byrne said the county started composting in 2007 during the height of the pine beetle epidemic. The center uses beetle kill and biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant for a 3-to-1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen.
A few years later, the pilot program started accepting food scraps and yard waste from ski resorts, schools, restaurants and landscapers. The High Country Conservation Center recently added a residential program, which now has 65 registered individuals and families who pay to drop off scraps.
“A lot of the material just blows away,” said Jason Thoma, the center’s operations manager. When it doesn’t break down, he said, “it’s looked at as litter.”
The county wants to transition all businesses to stricter guidelines that won’t allow those materials by Jan. 1.
“If it doesn’t go in your mouth and you can’t eat it,” Byrne said, “we don’t want it.”
Peels, skins and other parts of plants and animals that you don’t eat are fine, but no packaging, dishes, cups or utensils.
Thoma said the county needs a simple message due to the high number of visitors and seasonal residents. He can’t sit down with visitors who come to ski for a week and give them a Summit County orientation. But if he could, he would say, “Food and food only. Food only is very easy to understand.”
For now, organizations using the county composting center can keep doing what they’re doing.
“We don’t want to impact them financially,” Byrne said. He wants to tell them the county appreciates their participation in the program and help transition organizations to leaving those materials out.
Those paper and plastic materials can be recycled instead, he said. Businesses can invest in reusable dishes, cups and silverware.
Most of the communications around waste management in the county is handled by the High Country Conservation Center. The nonprofit’s executive director, Jen Schenk, said she started talking with county officials about transitioning to new standards when Whole Foods opened and plans to start educating businesses in the next couple of months.
“Any new businesses coming in,” she said, “we’re working with them to divert food waste only.”
At Whole Foods, Snyder said he is working every day on the challenge.
“The composting facility really wants us to get it right from the get-go,” he said. “That’s why we haven’t sent any compost yet.”
Snyder had some strategies for handling the problem: He plans to educate employees, switch the store’s manufactured compostables to recyclable ones and change signs around the store. He wants to weigh food scraps to show employees how much they go through. It could be a couple thousand pounds a day.
In the cafe area, he hopes to install a 3-D model like a science experiment, he said, to show customers the benefits of removing organic material from the landfill and turning it into soil.
He already approaches customers who walk up to the bins with hands full and eyes wide, helps them sort everything and grants them a Ph.D. in recycling and composting.
He’s proposed stationing an employee by the bins during the store’s busiest hours.
“I’m hoping by the end of June that we definitely are on board 100 percent with their guidelines.”