Boulder businesses are required to display clearly labeled receptacles by the Universal Zero Waste Ordinance (UZWO), which the city first enforced in 2017 as an effort toward creating a no-waste system in Boulder. Courtesy: City of Boulder

Even if you’re familiar with the individual trash, landfill and compost bins required at Boulder food businesses over the last five years, it can still get confusing when you go to throw away your napkins and meal scraps. At fast-casual restaurants where diners bus their own tables, customers might be unsure of which piece of trash to discard where.  

Boulder businesses are mandated to display these clearly labeled receptacles by the Universal Zero Waste Ordinance (UZWO), which the city first enforced in 2017 as an effort toward creating a no-waste system in Boulder. 

Under the ordinance, residential and commercial property owners must sign up for compost, recycling and trash collection services. Business owners also have to train their employees on proper waste sorting. 

If businesses fail to have three labeled collection bins for both employees and customers – with signs containing English and Spanish descriptions, provided free by the city – they receive two warnings from the Climate Initiatives Department and Code Enforcement Division of the Police Department. They’re then fined $500 with increasing charges for continued offense.

After halting enforcement during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the city will later this month begin requiring local dining establishments — and all other Boulder businesses — to report their compliance with the ordinance. 

This comes at a time when the city is trying to balance its environmental priorities with the still-fragile nature of local businesses, which took a big hit from early lockdowns and the resulting economic downturn.

“The last thing we wanted to do was add more stress and pressure to the restaurant community,” Sandy Briggs, the city’s sustainability program manager, says of the nearly two-year enforcement pause. “But that doesn’t mean we still didn’t expect businesses to adhere to the ordinance requirements. They just didn’t have to prove it.” 

To submit that proof, Boulder food businesses must annually report compliance by submitting an online form including a photo of their correctly labeled bins. This year’s deadline is August 31.

The law is part of Boulder’s work to catalyze a “circular economy” by 2025. By then, the city hopes for 85 percent of all waste to be recycled, composted or reused instead of going to landfills, becoming a model for more eco-friendly cities around the U.S.

While nearly all businesses easily comply with UZWO — the city doesn’t dig through bins to penalize improperly sorted waste — not all owners believe the ordinance meaningfully helps meet local waste-reduction goals. Peter Jones, general manager and an employee-owner of Trident Booksellers and Cafe, says he doesn’t see the point in submitting a photo of their trash bins once a year, since he hypothetically could take signage down immediately after doing so and can’t actually ensure that customers throw out their trash correctly. 

Jones sees the ordinance as an unnecessary bureaucratic process that burdens busy businesses owners with another checklist item without actually making sure their customers are following the letter of the law. 

“Compliance is not actually compliance,” he says, since anyone can make it look like they’re abiding by the rules with a single well-staged photograph.

“There really are no safeguards,” Briggs says of Jones’ hypothetical. “But we’re trying to create a community that cares about waste sorting.” She hopes that, once businesses understand how to do it, they’ll continue on their own without pressure from the city. 

Though Boulder lacks the capacity to constantly enforce the ordinance in every one of its businesses, Briggs estimates that the city receives up to 10 complaints a month through their online platform Inquire Boulder from residents reporting businesses, often the same ones, that aren’t compliant with the ordinance.

Door-to-door engagement 

To help business owners and their employees meet and report UZWO requirements, the city works with Partners for a Clean Environment (PACE), a contracted consultant that acts as business advisors for the ordinance. 

Delani Wood, a business sustainability fellow at PACE, was hired this year specifically for door-to-door engagement regarding UZWO reporting. In addition to providing materials like waste bins, signs and liners, Wood and other PACE employees have recently been meeting with restaurants to make sure they understand the ordinance — starting with businesses that opened since the city paused reporting in 2020 and 2021. 

As Wood tours new restaurants around town, she also checks for compliance at surrounding businesses, restaurants whose submitted form wasn’t quite right, and at businesses the city received complaints about. The goal is for Wood to visit all Boulder businesses — and get as many as possible reporting compliance with UZWO.

During the last year of mandatory reporting before the pause in 2019, PACE reached 97 percent compliance with restaurants and grocery stores.  

Of course, the ordinance’s success, and that of overall waste reduction in Boulder, isn’t guaranteed by proper signage. Though UZWO mandates composting through Boulder’s trash collector Western Disposal and A1 Organics, there’s often human error in trash sorting that falls out of businesses’ control.

When Jones and his staff noticed Trident customers putting waste in the wrong bins, they came up with their own setup. The café now has a bin marked for trash and some counter space designated for compost and recycling, which staff sorts themselves to eliminate patrons’ confusion or carelessness.  

“There are no penalties for Western Disposal or A1 Organics,” Jones says, nor for customers using the wrong bins. “Why am I the one who has to bear all the work and fines?” (While the city doesn’t issue fines for incorrect sorting, Western Disposal recently announced that they will begin rejecting collection and adding potential fees for visibly contaminated compost.)

Since compost is often the messiest waste stream to deal with, the city tries to make the collection process a little easier and cheaper for businesses through its Green Bag Giveaway program, which provides free compostable bin liners to any business that wants them. Boulder offers businesses two boxes of compostable bin liners every month for at least a year, with the option to renew when they report compliance. The program is paid through revenue from the city’s 10-cent disposable bag fee at all grocery stores.

Though Briggs estimates 99 percent of businesses opt into the Green Bag Giveaway, she also knows the liners only go so far. Providing compostable takeaway materials isn’t part of Boulder’s mandate. And while many restaurants in Boulder offer compostable to-go containers and cups, many still use styrofoam ones. 

In mid-2020, the city temporarily funded the Sustainable Takeout Items Subsidy with Boulder’s trash tax, giving around 90 businesses up to $1,000 to spend on compostable to-go items on a first come, first served basis. The goods came from local company Tundra Restaurant Supply. 

“Some of the largest systemic changes we want to make are requiring compostable or recyclable takeout containers,” Briggs says, or even incentivising the use of reusable boxes. 

A manager who oversees production and logistics for a Colorado fast-casual chain eatery with a restaurant in Boulder estimates that compostable boxes, cups and silverware are 70 percent more expensive than non-compostable ones. He asked to remain anonymous out of fear of backlash.

“Restaurants in Boulder that operate on a lower margin don’t have the option to buy compostable goods,” he says. “Boulder should take more steps to offer compostable goods if they want this to work.” 

This is already on the city’s agenda. During the city council’s August 25 meeting, Boulder residents will discuss requiring compostable takeout materials at businesses. 

And Boulder’s next UZWO initiative will be an educational program for customers, who are a large part of the equation in getting waste in the right place. Part of that is explaining why composting correctly matters.  

“There’s a stigma around recycling and compost,” Wood, with PACE, says. A few customers have approached her during her rounds to ask about whether all of Boulder’s waste streams ultimately end up in the landfill. “People think maybe their actions don’t make a difference, and that’s an age-old problem.” 

Jessica Mordacq

I’m a contributor to the Boulder Reporting Lab focused on food, restaurants, local business and more. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, I graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and have previously written for various trade and lifestyle magazines.

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