COVID-19 has led to a new pilot program that could be the start of public composting in Aspen. Through ski season, the city has set up a container at the Rio Grande recycling center that accepts compostable takeout containers.
Through the height of quarantine last spring, and in ramped-up, red-level restrictions over the holidays, area restaurants shifted a majority of their sales to takeout orders.
Liz O’Connell Chapman, senior waste reduction specialist with the city of Aspen, said the city saw an opportunity to mitigate some of the extra trash being generated from the situation.
“Along with that increase in take-away orders is an increase in take-away waste. We wanted to do what we could to adjust for that,” she said.
The latchable green metal bin is now sitting alongside the other containers in the recycle center. It’s a free, public option for those who otherwise would not have access to a compost bin.
“Visitors and our workforce population — and, for that matter, some of the folks that live in Aspen — don’t have a curbside compost service,” she said.
Some area complexes provide composting for residents and there is compost collection at the city landfill, but Chapman said that is not a practical solution for diners who don’t want to throw compostable containers into the trash.
“You are not going to cart those empty take-away containers all the way home to compost them or stop by the landfill on your way home,” she said.
The receptacle is temporary. A longstanding complication with rolling out composting citywide is the wildlife that frequents town — particularly bears.
“The minute it starts warming up, that is going to be a significant issue,” Chapman said.
The bin does not have an automatic latch, and “it’s not secure to the ground. Once the bears wake up, they would very easily be able to toss this thing around.”
For similar reasons, the bin is only for the takeout containers, not any remaining food.
Aspen council has directed staff to look at expanding ways to divert trash from the landfill. A mandate requiring compostable take-away containers at all restaurants has been floated, but it is prohibited by Colorado state law.
However, some restaurants have elected to utilize only compostable take-out containers even without it being required, such as Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop. Owner Wendy Mitchell said that for her, the expense is worth it.
“It’s just one of those ethical things, when you look at how much food you are throwing away and how much paper goods,” she said.
Along with paying for compost pickup at her restaurant, compost bags are much more expensive than trash bags, and compostable containers are more costly than foam. With restaurants operating on such slim margins as it is, the cost of going green is a barrier for many, she continued.
“The expense is the No. 1 thing. I think most people would do it if it were not for the expense,” Mitchell said.
She said there is also an element of changing old habits and making sure all staff is able to sort what needs to go in the compost, the recycling and the landfill.
“There is some mentality that it is too hard to train people. You have to spend a little time educating,” she said.
She praised the city for the pilot program and also expressed faith in the public to change their behaviors to make it successful.
“I think it’s great. I think a lot of people will use it even though it’s an extra step,” she said.
On her end, Chapman will be monitoring the trial program to inform the city of how much buy-in there may be from the public in future community composting efforts.
“If this is a successful pilot, it shows us that our community — including our visitors and our workforce population — are interested and willing to separate materials to get them diverted from the landfill, and that would lead us to more aggressively pursue expanding programs like this,” she said. “If we learn the opposite, then that tells us something as well.”