Whole Foods Market adapts to stricter composting rules in Summit County
January 17, 2015
Behind the Whole Foods Market in Frisco, mostly hidden by a wall, lie two massive waste compactors.
The store originally planned for both compactors to smash trash, but over the summer one was dedicated to fruit peels, vegetable parts, old food and other compost. The area around that compactor is now painted green and plastered with "food scraps only" stickers.
Often on Thursdays, before the compactor is emptied and its contents hauled to Summit County's composting facility, you can find a man inside.
Matty Snyder, the store's sanitation supervisor and green mission representative, covers himself with trash bags, enters the smelly compactor and fishes out things that aren't supposed to be there.
Whole Foods, which opened in April and produces tens of thousands of pounds of food waste every month, was one of the first businesses asked to adapt to new Summit County composting rules.
As of Jan. 1, the Summit County Resource Allocation Park (SCRAP) prohibited manufactured compostables — those cups, plates, utensils, bags, packaging and other products labeled as biodegradable.
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Officials found those materials aren't breaking down. Tiny pieces of plastic contaminate the high-quality soil amendment the county sells to gardeners and landscapers. Bits of paper rise to the top of compost piles and blow away.
In the end, it all looks like litter.
Though people in hot, humid climates have found ways to break down the manufactured materials, said Thad Noll, assistant county manager, professional composters around the country are struggling with the same issue.
Some, including ones in Denver, have invested millions in machinery to combat the problem.
County officials have encouraged businesses to recycle their manufactured compostables and consider phasing them out.
"It's a food scrap program. It's not an alternative to getting rid of things that you don't want to wash or recycle," Noll said.
Whole Foods' infrastructure is built around being able to compost manufactured products, Snyder said, so the transition was a challenge.
For the store's first couple of months, it added food waste that customers sometimes meticulously sorted to the trash headed for landfill piles.
But composting fits with the company's core values and is a passion for Snyder.
"We didn't want to let the guys at SCRAP down," he said.
By July, he had sufficiently educated employees and shoppers about the "food only" rule and started sending compost to the county facility.
According to a report created for Whole Foods by trash hauler Waste Management, the company hauled 111 tons of compost for the store from April through December and 144 tons of trash.
To put that into perspective, in the store's eight months it has composted the weight equivalent of 62 midsize cars.
"We're a real poster child," Snyder said.
Other Summit businesses and organizations have toured the store and asked for Snyder's expertise.
Snyder said he is constantly trying to improve the store's waste diversion and training employees how to properly dispose of items. A camera watches the compacters in case serious contamination occurs.
A BAG ISSUE
Though Whole Foods is arguably the most dedicated, other businesses around the county also compost and have adjusted to the new rule.
Some struggled with what to do with the manufactured compostables they already bought and how to transport and store compost without compostable plastic bags.
At the end of December, the county's zero-waste task force decided to allow businesses and organizations to include plastic bags in the compost stream if they were certified by the Biodegradable Plastics Institute.
"Thank goodness they did that. It was a mess," said Woody Bates, facilities manager for Summit School District, which phased in composting in the schools in 2009. "We transitioned to using no bags, and we just started going back."
The 60 households paying to participate in the county's residential composting program are still not allowed to include bags, said Jen Schenk, director of High Country Conservation Center. She added contamination there has been a minor problem.
SKI AREAS AND SCHOOLS
The county's ski areas often boast about their environmental efforts.
A Vail Resorts representative could not be reached for comment, but Schenk said Breckenridge Ski Resort doesn't compost, while Keystone Resort does.
Copper Mountain Resort composts and has been training its staff to reduce contamination, said Jeff Grasser, leader of Copper's green team. The resort plans to further extend its message of treating the environment with respect to its guests in the next year.
Arapahoe Basin Ski Area recently received an industry award in part for diverting about 115,000 total pounds of waste from becoming landfill trash.
A-Basin started separating glass from its comingled recycling at the end of last ski season, long before the Jan. 1 deadline, and last year it composted 47,000 pounds of waste.
Employees drive compost and recycling to the county dump once a week, said Mike Nathan, sustainability coordinator. "Most of these efforts have cost us virtually nothing."
The biggest challenge has been getting customers to sort things properly.
"A guest comes up with a tray of trash, and all they want to do is get back on the hill," he said. "The fact that anybody composts or recycles when they get here, to me, is awesome."
He hopes the ski area's signs inspire skiers to think more about their impacts on and off the mountain.
The school district adopted the signs A-Basin used to help people sort waste and added Spanish, Nathan said. Now A-Basin has seen the benefit of the dual-language messaging and is copying the schools' signs.
Bates said the schools changed to "food only" compost at the start of the school year. Results vary depending on the school, with elementary students better at sorting than the older kids.
"Some places the kids are doing great and require almost no supervision. It's hard to make a change when you have 3,300 students," he said. "I know it's been rough on the custodians."
A NICHE TO FILL
At the Mi Casa and Hearthstone restaurants in Breckenridge, employees didn't need to make changes because they use linen napkins and washable dishes and silverware.
Mi Casa has composted an average of 10 tons a month since it started in November 2010, and the monthly average for Hearthstone, which started three years ago, has been about half that.
Director of operations Jen Cawley said a business dedicated to hauling compost would likely see great success in Summit.
Cawley said she sees the composting change becoming a problem during the county's large summer events. At the Colorado BBQ Challenge and the USA Pro Challenge, for example, vendors have been encouraged to use compostables.
Few Breckenridge restaurants compost, while nearly all recycle, so removing glass from the comingled bins has been more of an adjustment. The Breckenridge Restaurant Association has helped, Cawley said.
"The restaurant association has done a really good job about disseminating information," she said. "Then it's just a matter of filtering that down to the line-level staff and making sure that that's dual language."
She said businesses and individuals should continue to encourage each other to improve their composting and recycling efforts.
"Once people see the amount that they can actually divert from the trash it can get really infectious," she said. "You really want to do it."
Back at Whole Foods, Matty Snyder is also working on getting the store to recycle glass.
He doesn't want anyone to get in the habit of throwing glass in with the trash, so he doesn't include glass products on the signs labeled landfill, even though that's where they're currently going.
"It hurts," he said.