What goes in bins to change
No more pizza boxes; firm trying to get rid of contaminated products
By Noelle Phillips
The primary company accepting compostable materials across Colorado’s Front Range plans to stop taking packaging and service ware such as carryout containers, plates, paper towels, greasy pizza boxes, cups and utensils — meaning tons of waste designed to break down into soil will end up in landfills.
A1 Organics, the largest recycler of organic materials in Colorado, this week announced that, beginning April 1, it will accept only food waste and yard trimmings, according to a news release. The company says it has been overwhelmed by contaminated products as composting efforts have blossomed around the Front Range, so it’s reducing what it will accept.
“Contamination is the No. 1 challenge our industry faces in the residential and commercial organics recycling streams,” the company states. “A1 Organics believes a paradigm shift is needed in the collection and processing of these organics to move Colorado in the right direction toward achieving increased organics diversion and clean finished compost.”That means local governments, school systems and businesses that run composting programs are racing to educate their customers on what they still can put in their bins and what will happen to the other materials. Meanwhile, zero-waste advocates are trying to put a positive spin on the setback in Colorado’s large-scale composting efforts.
“We look at this as a growing pain,” said Marti Matsch, deputy director of Eco-Cycle, a Boulder-based, nonprofit recycler. “It’s a sign of success that composting has become such a big part of our lives in how we handle discards. It’s a huge climate solution, and we’re all committed to getting it right.”
In Denver, city officials need to spread the word to their 30,000 composting customers about what they can and cannot put in their green bins. The city has updated its website and soon will mail notices to customers, said Vanessa Lacayo, a spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
“We do not expect these changes will have a huge impact for our current compost customers, given that most of what people compost at home is food waste and yard debris,” Lacayo wrote in an email. “As we begin phasing in weekly composting citywide later this summer, these new guidelines will already be in place.”
But it’s that growing participation in composting programs that has created problems for A1. The Denver Post could not reach A1 Organics representatives Thursday for comment.
“It doesn’t take many of us to do it wrong to ruin the whole batch,” said Elizabeth Chapman, executive director of Recycle Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for waste reduction. “The reality is the more people you get involved, the higher the level of contamination.”
“Either out of ignorance or indifference”
Chapman and others from Recycle Colorado toured A1 Organics on Thursday to see the problem for themselves. They watched workers go through the process of accepting material and saw the contaminated products mixed with usable substances being hauled in by the truckload, she said.
Chapman saw a lot of green and black plastic bags that were brought into the facility. She understands that a green plastic bag can be misleading in appearing that it is compostable, but she doesn’t understand why people would put a black garbage bag in their compost bins.
“That ends up there either out of ignorance or indifference,” she said.
Those plastic bags can hide dangerous items such as hypodermic needles and broken glass. It’s expensive and time-consuming for employees to open thousands of garbage bags every day to empty the contents. And A1 Organics is left holding the bag, so to speak, and must pay to have non-compostable material disposed of.
A big problem for the entire composting world is deceptive labeling that tricks people into thinking they are buying compostable material to use in their homes and businesses. But not all products labeled “plant-based” or “biodegradable” are compostable, Matsch said. And there are no state or federal laws regulating what is marketed as compostable.
“With the rise of compostable products, we’ve also seen a rise of lookalikes, products that aren’t actually compostable and with confusing labels on them,” she said. “It’s a case of greenwashing, as we call it.”
Many of those things contain petroleum-based plastics that end up in the compost that A1 Organics makes.
“So basically when it breaks down through the compost system, the plant element will biodegrade and those microplastics remain,” Matsch said. “We don’t want that in the soil or in the food we grow in the soil.”
A1 Organics says on its website that 90% of the material it accepts is usable and composted into material used by farmers, landscapers, nurseries and gardeners. But that other 10% is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.
The company tests its batches, and when those plastics are detected, it cannot sell that batch as compost. So piles of material sit on A1 Organics’ property as company officials try to figure out what to do with it, Chapman said.
“They’re running out of room,” she said. “There’s a finite amount of space out there.”
Chapman and Matsch said the compost A1 Organics does sell is clean and safe to return to the soil. Narrowing the list of material the company accepts will guarantee that high-quality compost is produced, they said.
Other states dealing with same issue
Colorado is not the only state that is figuring out what to do with contaminated compost materials.
Vermont was the first state to require that food scraps get composted. The state has launched studies to tackle the problem of how to compost containers and tableware. Meanwhile, only food scraps and yard waste are accepted. Cities in California and Oregon also have changed what they will accept, Matsch said.
Keeping food scraps, grass clippings, leaves and twigs out of landfills reduces methane gas emissions, which has a direct impact on climate change, Matsch said. Compostable packaging has the potential to do the same. But it’s going to take time to figure out how to do it the right way.
“We aren’t expecting the compostable products to be allowed back into the stream any time soon,” Matsch said. “We need to start to gear up for alternatives. Those alternatives will not be readily available for us starting April 1.”
Until that happens, people who compost need to remember the basics — only put food waste and yard trimmings in their bins.
Chapman tells people to think of what they would be willing to leave on the dashboard of their car on a hot summer day.
“Would you leave that thing on the dashboard of your car? Nope. Would it get gross? Put it in the compost,” she said.