Throwing food waste into the trash produces a nasty gas much more harmful than carbon dioxide.
“The absolute worst thing we can be putting into the landfill is organic waste,” said assistant county manager Thad Noll.
Organic waste is basically anything that has once been alive. The materials don’t naturally contain methane, but when they are put into a landfill, methane is produced.
“So many people think, ‘If I’m throwing my food waste into the landfill, isn’t that the same thing as composting?’ They think their food waste is breaking down,” said Jen Schenk, High Country Conservation Center director. “But what actually happens in the landfill is that things degrade an anaerobic environment.”
Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the United States. The EPA reports that pound for pound, the impact of methane on climate change is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
Closing the loop
Composting is a way to avoid producing greenhouse gases and to eliminate waste. When people compost, they are essentially closing the loop. Leftover food scraps turn into compost, which goes back into soil, which helps produce food. The cycle goes full circle.
Summit County’s landfill adopted a composting system in 2007. The Summit County Resource Allocation Park, or SCRAP, has the capacity to compost a huge amount of organic materials safely and effectively. But the facility isn’t “closing the loop.”
“We’ve been really successful in getting materials up there, and SCRAP has been amazing in getting the commercial composting up and running — which is no easy feat to develop recipes and compost at over 5,000 feet,” Schenk said.
“The challenge is, we are having problems selling the end product,” she said.
SCRAP has a composting program that diverts biosolids and food waste from the landfill.
Its High Country compost is made from biosolids and was developed in conjunction with the Snake River and Upper Blue wastewater treatment plants.
The facility also has a compost made from food scraps and other organic waste. Timberline Disposal picks up the compostable material from local businesses and the residential compost-drop-off program at the Frisco recycling center.
Both compost products are mixed with wood chips made from beetle-kill wood.
To make compost, SCRAP calculates and graphs temperature, then mixes, aerates and flips the materials in a process that takes more than a month. During this time, pathogens are removed and a high-quality compost, which meets state requirements, is created.
Jason Thoma, the landfill operations supervisor, said sometimes people are hesitant to use the biosolid compost in their veggie gardens because the organic matter comes from the wastewater center. But he said all pathogens are removed through the wastewater treatment and compost process, it is lab tested and it is absolutely safe to use.
“I use it in my garden,” she said.
Thoma will go one step further.
“I’d eat the stuff,” he said. “It would taste like dirt. But it wouldn’t hurt you.”
The non-biosolid, or NO BS, compost is created using food scraps and other organic matter collected by local businesses, including restaurants, ski areas and residents who take part in the Summit Compost Drop-off Program.
When composting, it’s important to pay attention to what items can and cannot be used.
HC3 plays an important part in educating the public about composting.
“A lot of people have heard the term compost, but they don’t really know what it means,” Schenk said. “So we are talking to the public about how to use compost to amend your soil and make it nutrient rich,” she said.
HC3 will go in to restaurants and educate the staff about what materials can be composted, what can be recycled and what needs to be thrown in the trash.
People need to be mindful about what they compost.
“Someone might ask, ‘Can I compost my wine cork?’ Well, theoretically you can,” Thoma said.
“But then you start thinking about synthetic wine corks. Is everyone going to notice if they are throwing away a plastic cork? You could be looking at a major contamination level,” he said.
Education plays a big part in composting, and local representatives agree that there will have to be public buy-in in order to expand collection and pick up into residential composting in Summit County.
Going to waste
Right now, the biggest hurdle in Summit County’s commercial composting operation is people aren’t buying it.
Although SCRAP composts thousands of tons of organic materials every year, a lot of it just ends up piling up on site.
The SCRAP composting program started after staff saw the need to divert food scraps from the landfill, SCRAP director Aaron Byrne said. It was also a good opportunity to utilize wood from beetle-kill trees, he said.
“We have been making compost and diverting organic waste to reduce greenhouse gas. But on the other side of that, to be a sustainable program, we have to sell the compost,” Byrne said.
HC3 educators said their immediate goal is to find a way to sell more of the local compost product. Too many people, they say, are buying prepackaged soils from big-box stores that have been shipped across the country. Not only is it bad for the environment, Schenk said, there’s no way to know where it came from.
Local composting representatives encourage anyone doing landscape or gardening work to buy their compost locally from SCRAP.
“We can keep the organics out of the landfill and make compost. But if the compost just piles up, we haven’t really done anything but make a big pile of compost,” Noll said. “We have to complete the cycle and get the compost back in the ground.”