It’s a stench that, when the wind is blowing just right, can trigger a gag reflex and linger with a person for hours.
Welcome to the composting section of the Pitkin County landfill, where piles of rotten food, sludge and yard waste cook to 132 degrees for about 18 days before it’s sold as rich soil on the open market.
“I like to get in and out,” said Chris Fortenberry, a hauler for Hutton Organics, on a recent hot and smelly afternoon at the landfill. He unloads 15 to 20 tons of discarded food in a four-day period — from nine Walmarts around the region.
“Walmart is pretty big into this,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful that we’re keeping it out of the landfill.”
Fortenberry also picks up from Sam’s Club in Grand Junction and a man camp at a natural gas drilling pad in Parachute.
Dave Reindel, owner of EverGreen Events who picks up compost material from event organizers, as well as residential and commercial customers, operates on a smaller scale with close to 2 tons a week at the landfill.
He dumps the food waste next to a pile of ground-up grit from the wastewater treatment plant, (aka poop), that will eventually be mixed together with other material to make compost.
It’s the least glamorous job one could have but it’s worth it on so many levels, Reindel said.
“You have to have a special attitude to dig this, and be enthusiastic about it and share that enthusiasm,” he said.
The thousands of tons that they haul to the dump would have ended up in the landfill had their customers decided not to take relatively easy steps to throw discarded food in a different garbage bin.
The majority of what’s filling the local landfill is food waste, all of which could be diverted if businesses and residents took up composting. Nationally, 21 percent of material that ends up in the landfill is food waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. At the Pitkin County facility, that percentage is higher, according to Ashley Perl, senior environmental health specialist for the city of Aspen, who heads up the composting program offered by the municipal government.
With only a 15-year life span left on the landfill, Pitkin County Solid Waste Center Manager Cathy Hall is hoping to divert more food waste and up the facility’s composting capacity. If the landfill could divert 21 percent of all local food waste, it could add another three years to its life, Hall added.
In 2012, the landfill composted 1,006 tons of food waste, and is on target to nearly triple that this year now that Hutton Organics, the solid waste center’s largest compost hauler, has tripled its contracts with its customers.
Hall plans to go before the Pitkin County commissioners this fall to ask for between $800,000 and $1 million to purchase more specialized composting equipment, and to market the environmentally friendly operation.
“We don’t market this program because we can’t grow it yet,” Hall said.
The investment could translate into doubling the composting capacity at the landfill, which is the only solid waste facility that provides such a service on the Western Slope.
“Then we could go to the schools and restaurants” to get them to compost, Hall said.
When the mixture of food, poop, dirt, wood, yard waste and other material is fully cooked, it’s screened, sampled and then put to market as rich potting and top soil for gardeners and landscapers. The landfill also donates composting material; the Independence Pass Foundation plans to use 1,200 cubic yards to mix with biochar for a restoration project this fall. Local schools and nonprofits with gardens also are recipients.
While the food waste is waiting to be mixed, it is covered every night with wood chips.
“It keeps the smells down and makes it look nicer,” Hall said. “We try to keep the bears away but they dig it up anyway.”
She noted that if the operation increases in capacity, the bear scavenging will need to be addressed. One option is to use bear-proof bins to store the material before it’s mixed and placed onto what are called “wind rows.”
Currently, the solid waste center uses the city’s mixer that it acquired from a grant but it’s not robust enough to grind all the material that is used to make compost.
“If we don’t get a good grind on it then food gets chunky and then it’s hard to get the right temperature,” Hall said.
The solid waste center pays a contractor, Heartland Environmental, to screen the material for debris and grind it at a cost of over $400,000 a year.
If the solid waste center has its own equipment, it will eliminate that expense, allow it to do more composting and make more money on the enterprise.
“We really are at capacity with the [current] equipment,” Hall said.
The profits from soils help offset the costs of the composting program. Last year, the solid waste center generated nearly $400,000 by selling compost, and potting and top soil. It also generates revenue in tipping fees for the components that make up compost — sludge, leaves and grass, brush, food waste and dirt.
It’s actually cheaper for businesses and residents to compost than to throw food away, since tipping fees for food waste are less expensive for haulers than regular trash — $35 versus $57 a ton — which is reflected in people’s trash bills.
The Sky Hotel is enrolled in the city composting program and Cory Enloe, general manager, said the business has seen a cost savings in his bill with MRI.
“It turned out to be a significant savings,” he said. “We cut out a dumpster when we went to composting.”
Enloe said it’s not overly difficult to separate food from the kitchen, “It’s just one more bin.”
At first, there were growing pains but soon it became routine for his employees to separate all compostable material in the kitchen. He does have to remind and re-educate from time to time, although most are on board.
“People want to do the right thing,” Enloe said.
Since the city launched its composting program in 2011, it has provided bins to and connected haulers with close to 200 residents, Perl said. Only a few restaurants have enrolled.
She noted that follows the national trend, which is a shame since 60 to 70 percent of material in restaurants could be composted and diverted from the landfill.
Hall finds the EPA’s estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the food supply ends up as waste “appalling.” It’s also the largest percentage waste category for landfills throughout the country.
Burying food waste also creates another problem: methane gas emissions.
“By keeping food waste out of the landfill, it reduces greenhouse gases,” Hall said.
Reindel, who has been collecting compost material for three years and has found a niche without even marketing it, said he is inspired to see restaurants, coffee shops, businesses and residents catching on to the benefits of composting. He has upwards of 100 customers.
“It’s a cool network that’s growing,” he said. “It’s neat to get into a person’s house, touch their life and make a change, and then they share it.”
Just like Hall, Reindel said he plans on increasing his operation. He is looking to buy a truck and is going to start marketing the service he offers.
Not only is there money to be made, it is an enterprise that involves social change in the name of the environment.
“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” Reindel said. “We are only in business thanks to the Pitkin County landfill. ... It’s super cool that the city and Pitkin County are putting resources, thought and money into it.”
While the solid waste center processes the material, the city does the outreach for composting. It offers a free waste audit for businesses and residents that involves measuring their waste streams, putting them in touch with haulers that pick up compost materials and showing them the savings they’d realize.
Reindel said it only makes sense that anything that ever lived should be reused. He pointed out that recycled paper has environmental costs, since it’s trucked and shipped to wherever it’s processed — places like China.
He also said that a person’s economic status, language or race don’t matter in composting — everyone can and should do it.
“Composting is so local,” he said. “It’s the easiest thing to do.”