‘Single-use equals trash now:’ Big changes are coming to composting in Boulder
The company that recycles compost for Boulder’s residents and businesses announced last week it will no longer accept many biodegradable products — including paper materials, tea bags, coffee filters, disposable cutlery and other items labeled as “compostable” — as part of its latest effort to crack down on contamination.
A1 Organics, which operates one of the largest commercial composting facilities in the Front Range, said it will only accept food scraps, yard waste, plant trimmings and certain compostable bags. The change will take effect on April 1, 2023.
The announcement is a major change to the city’s 14-year-old curbside composting program, one of the few such urban efforts in the county. It means that compostable products that many consider to be eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastics, such as to-go cups for iced coffee, will soon be heading directly to the landfill, where the company said many of these products end up already.
Typically made from plant fibers or starches, certain compostable products do not break down at A1’s facility in Keenesburg, about an hour’s drive east of Boulder. Meanwhile, non-compostable “look-alike items” are also ending up in the mix, according to the company.
As a result, entire batches of compost have been “contaminated with fragments” of trash, it said. Unable to sell the compost, A1 Organics dumps it in the landfill and bills Boulder’s primary waste hauler, Western Disposal, for disposal fees.
“Our goal is to keep food scraps and yard trimmings out of the landfill,” the company said in a news release announcing the new guidelines.
When food waste rots in a landfill, it emits methane gas, a major contributor to climate change. Composting, by contrast, turns food scraps into soil fertilizer. (Waste sent to the landfill accounts for about 2% of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.)
A1 said the changes would cut landfill methane emissions while helping “Colorado farms and landscapes build healthy soils that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reduce water and chemical use, and grow nutritious foods.”
Many compostable items carry a logo from the Biodegradable Products Institute, an organization that certifies whether products are compostable. The BPI certification indicates, in part, if a product meets international standards for being able to break down in “municipal and industrial composting facilities.”
Come April, the company said it will only accept three-gallon compostable bags certified as “composter approved” by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, a company that performs field testing to determine how products break down in certain conditions. Bags certified only by BPI, and not CMA, will no longer be accepted.
In July 2022, Western Disposal Services, a Boulder-based company that provides trash, recycling and compost collection services, warned residents and businesses that contamination was threatening the the viability of composting in the region. The waste hauler is now notifying customers of the recent changes.
“Compost does need to be clean,” Kathy Carroll, a spokeswoman for Western Disposal Services, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “This is one way to clean the stream. And we need to work with it because they are the only company in the area that can process compost at this time.”
The changes could come as a shock to Boulder’s businesses, some of which have already invested in single-use compostable serviceware and signage, in part to comply with the city’s 2015 waste diversion ordinance. Last summer, due to reports of contamination from businesses, the city allowed restaurants and cafes to remove their composting receptacles.
In 2006, in an effort to become a “zero waste” community, the Boulder City Council adopted the goal to divert 85% of its waste — yard debris, food, recyclables — from the landfill by 2017, in part, by recycling or composting. (The target date was later bumped to 2025.) The plan helped spur the city’s curbside compost collection program, which began in 2009.
The city is about halfway toward meeting its zero-waste goal. In 2021, about 44% of the city’s food and other waste was diverted, according to city data.
Carroll, of Western Disposal, said it’s unfortunate that many compostable products will soon be disposed of in the landfill. But at least the new guidelines are simple, she said.
“Plants, food scraps and yard trimmings. That’s it,” Carroll said. “Single-use equals trash now.”