Summit County’s unlikely product: top-grade compost
Ryan Summerlin May 8, 2012
At High Country Compost, 5,487 tons of food, biosolids, plant trimmings and wood chips turned to soil in 2011 – creating compost prime for use in gardens and landscaping within roughly three months of drop-off.
There’s the three weeks in the initial stage, another six weeks of turning and churning and four weeks for curing in a 13-week process.
“When we started this, a lot of people said we couldn’t do it with the temperatures and elevation and the longer winters,” said Aaron Byrne, the county’s solid waste director.
It’s still tough to get the word out, even though the High Country Compost operation has been going for about five years now. Recently, a Vail man purchased the product, saying he had been shipping his soil from the Front Range.
It’s all done at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park, which also includes the recycling facility, an asphalt recycling area and the landfill, among other operations.
Compost is available in the biosolid and no-biosolid versions. One stream creates compost using dried sludge from local wastewater treatment plants as its nitrogen source, and the no-biosolid version uses food waste, manure, grass clippings and spent grains (mainly from breweries) as the nitrogen source. Both use wood chips as the carbon source.
Summit County ski resorts have composting programs in place that contribute some of the largest volumes of food waste into the program, each ranging from 10 to 50 tons of material each season – but that’s not as much as it seems, particularly compared to more than 3,400 tons coming by way of biosolids.
“One plus one is not two,” Thoma said. “Material decreases in volume as it goes through the process. … There’s probably about a 30 percent loss in volume when you go through the composting process.”
The two streams are separated because some people prefer the no-biosolid version. It’s a more fibrous texture, but has many of the same nutritional components.
“You have to get the recipe right to make it easy,” compost operations supervisor Jason Thoma said. In particular, the nitrogen-carbon ratio must be right to get the compost heap to 131 degrees for the appropriate time to eliminate pathogens. If the compost doesn’t meet pathogen reduction standards, it returns to the piles to be processed again.
“We have made the top-grade compost that money can buy,” Thoma said.
Operators are continually experimenting to add new products and test the science behind composting. Last August, they added a quarter-inch product that’s ideal for dressing lawns prior to seeding. It has opened up markets like golf courses and ball fields.
But everyone is buying it – from mom and pop arriving with a bucket in hand to landscapers hauling it by the truckload.
They’ve proven it’s more than possible to do at elevation; it’s also crucial to Summit County’s zero-waste initiatives and completes the circle on recycling measures.
Several zero-waste programs through Frisco’s High Country Conservation Center (HC3) were limited by the inability to compost a high quantity of waste that included meat, bones and dairy.
“Now, we’re able to offer services like waste consultations for sustainable business programs,” said Jen Santry, HC3 waste coordinator. All eight schools in Summit County are composting – diverting a total of about 15 tons in the past three years – and events like the Frisco BBQ Challenge, Breckenridge’s Oktoberfest and Dillon’s Farmer’s Market are able to truly go zero-waste.
It’s also allowing the residential composting pilot program to continue – though officials foresee problems with contamination if it’s not done right.
“It’s been proven when they’ve done pilots down in Denver. … The contamination is huge. You’d have to consider it a different product than even the institutional food waste because of the contamination levels,” Thoma said.
The final product of the current operation is available for sale, and it’s also donated back to the community. Summit County’s five community gardens benefit from the donations, valued at roughly $20,000. When more than 80 percent of new community gardeners are beginners to growing food, good soil can be the key to turning them on, Santry said.
“You can just throw seeds in and do just about anything and something’s going to grow,” she said. “(The Living Classroom’s) community garden was just going off in July and August. The soil is very high in nutrients. I ran a soil test through (Colorado State University) and it pretty much came back as perfect. It’s exciting you don’t have to amend your soil. It’s a slow release. You don’t have to keep adding fertilizers – it is the fertilizer.”