What Aspen & Pitkin County will do to extend the life of the local landfill
Food waste nationally 40% of waste by weight
by Allen Best
A program called “Scraps,” which has a high-minded goal of saving money and the environment, too, got a public push in Aspen recently. It all begins in the kitchen.
Cathy Hall, who is solid-waste manager for Pitkin County, wants to divert a larger share of the 17,000 tons of organic material, much of it food, that is currently put into the Pitkin County Landfill.
As measured by weight, food represents 40 percent of landfill waste nationally, according to estimates of the Environmental Protection Agency. That squares with a 2009 study in Pitkin County. The study concluded that 30 percent of residential waste and 55 to 60 percent of restaurant waste, by weight, was from food.
This matters immensely in Aspen because the local landfill has capacity for another 20 years, but 30 if an expansion is approved. After that, it’s heave-ho to a more distant landfill, likely an hour or more away, with increased transportation costs and the pollution that come with it.
“Once this landfill is done, there won’t be another landfill in Pitkin County,” says Hall, a reference to the limited land availability.
“The food industry is the low-hanging fruit for waste diversions.”
Hall, who says that she “loves talking trash,” explains that rotting food in the oxygen-starved environment of a landfill creates methane. By one estimate, it has 23 times the ability of carbon dioxide to trap heat when measured over the course of 100 years.
Methane can be harvested, and it is at several hundred landfills around the country. At some, the methane is burned to produce electricity.
Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, says the economics of methane capture have become more difficult. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have yielded a glut of low-priced natural gas for power plants, meaning utilities must be wiling to pay premium priced for electricity created by burning landfill methane, he says.
Increasingly, he says, methane is instead captured to use as fuel for powering trash and other trucks.
But even the best methane-capture projects allow 20 percent of the landfill gas to escape, says Hall. Better yet is keeping the food from becoming methane, by composting the food. Letting food rot in the oxygen-rich environment of a composting operation results only in carbon dioxide. Plus, composting produces a valuable product, rich with nutrients, that can be used for landscaping or, to make it full circle, the production of food.
Aspen has been pushing food diversion from the waste stream for several years. The city has distributed “possibly 200” plastic buckets to residents. The three-gallon buckets can be placed under sinks and six-gallon buckets in kitchen corners. Four of the eight companies hauling waste from Aspen homes and businesses offer pickup of compost for $4 to $4.50 per week per residence.
Several large-scale producers, such as Clark’s Market, the Sky Hotel, and food operations operated by the Aspen Skiing Co. have been participating in the composting program for several years. Beyond them, only 1.7 percent of all compostable materials from Aspen trash were diverted last year, says Liz O’Connell, the city’s waste reduction and environmental health specialist.
O’Connell says the city has worked with restaurants and other large-volume producers to ramp up the program. Chefs invariably support the effort. They are “very much in touch with the cycle of producing and disposing of foods,” she says.
The resistance comes from facilities manager and owners, who fret about added cost and space constraints. To ease acceptance, Pitkin County has now purchased 10 bear-proof to loan to businesses and will buy more as needed. The thinking is that that diverting waste now will save Pitkin County money in the land run.
Nationally, more cities and states have required food diversions. Most have been large cities or heavily populated states along the East and West coasts where space for landfills tends to be more limited.
In Seattle beginning in January, if food constitutes more than 10 percent of a resident’s trash, the customer may get a $1 fine attached to the monthly trash bill. The city council adopted the fines because Seattle’s recycling rate, now at 56 percent, has bogged down. The city had hoped to achieve 60 percent by 2015, reported the Seattle Times.
In New England, Massachusetts in October began requiring 1,700 institutions —grocery stores, schools, hospitals and food producers—who generate more than a ton of food waste a week to instead ship the waste to a composting facility.
NPR notes that Vermont and Connecticut have similar bans, but they only apply to facilities that produce two tons a week and are located within 20 miles of a food-waste recycling facility.
San Francisco made food diversion mandatory in 2009.
The EPA, in its Landfill Methane Outreach Program, reports that municipal sold waste landfills are responsible for 18.2 percent of human-related methane emissions in the United States.