It’s been less than three months since A1 Organics, the company that recycles compost for Boulder’s residents and businesses, banned biodegradable products from its composting program to only accept food and plant scraps. But the changes are already apparent.
Along Pearl Street, the compost sections of downtown trash boxes now say landfill. Grease-stained pizza boxes peek out of residential trash bins rather than composting ones. Residents, some reluctantly, toss once-compostable take-out containers and cutlery into garbage bins.
A1 Organics said it made the decision because the compost stream had become so contaminated with plastics and other trash it couldn’t sell the compost for soil fertilizer. Instead, the company was dumping contaminated compost in the landfill, it said, then billing Boulder’s primary waste hauler, Western Disposal, for disposal fees.
Knowing it would be controversial, last summer A1 Organics began warning about sweeping changes to the 14-year-old program, one of the only such curbside efforts in the country. And on April 1, 2023, it started accepting only food scraps, yard and plant trimmings and some brands of three-gallon certified compostable bags.
Now the question is: Is it working? According to A1 Organics, it is.
“We actually have seen a nice decrease in the level of contamination,” Clinton Sander, A1’s Organics marketing manager, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “It’s made a big difference.”
While the compost stream is less contaminated with trash — meaning more of it is ending up at A1’s facility in Keenesburg, about an hour’s drive east of Boulder — Sander wasn’t able to quantify the extent of the decrease in contamination.
He said the company measures contamination by the space it takes up — the volume — rather than how much it weighs. They do this because plastics, which make up much of the contamination, don’t weigh much but consume a lot of space.
It also remains unclear if this is an experiment or a permanent change.
“There’s a lot of necessary mechanisms that need to be in place in order for certain materials to come back and be accepted again in the compost stream,” Sander said. “We as a company are actively looking at other solutions and other opportunities to help protect the stream once the material is received at our facility.”
He said the changes are a chance for A1 Organics — Colorado’s largest compost manufacturer — to work toward ending contamination altogether.
“This is an amazing opportunity for Colorado to look at how we divert the organics, look at how we transport them, and look at how we are protecting the stream at the beginning, you know, at the generator level,” he said. “Like what mechanisms do you have in place to make sure there is no contamination in there?”
Since A1 Organics made the change, the City of Boulder has paused its Zero Waste Ordinance. The ordinance required businesses to have three labeled receptacles — for landfill, compost and recycling. Failure to comply resulted in a possible $500 fine, increasing with each offense. As part of the ordinance, employees also had to be trained on proper waste sorting. To help business owners and their employees meet and report requirements, the city works with Partners for a Clean Environment (PACE).
“In some ways it was a relief because [compliance] cost us a lot of money and it was kind of a pain in the neck,” Chris Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink on the Hill, said of the pause to the program. “It was hard to tell which [compostable containers] were good and which were bad. The ones that PACE recommended were often as much as twice as expensive as the ones that we were using. And it was just pretty cost-prohibitive.”
“I’d like to have an effective compostable stream for waste, but at the moment, we don’t have it,” Heinritz added.
Several businesses said, overall, they’re composting much less, citing confusion and other difficulties.
“I think its really confusing,” Sam Taylor, an employee at Alpine Modern, said of the changes. “It’s already hard enough for people. We haven’t really composted anything from the front of house since that change was enacted.”
Adrienne Kleronomos, who works at Mustard’s Last Stand, a hot dog restaurant downtown, echoed these frustrations.
“As a restaurant, we have a lot of paper products and compostable products that we purchased that we can no longer compost,” Kleronomos said. “So it’s unfortunate for us in that regard, we just kind of have to throw all that stuff in the trash now.”
As part of its partnership with PACE, the city is now trying to encourage businesses to switch to reusable takeout containers through incentives, such as a one-time refund. The refund covers up to 70% of total purchasing costs of reusable containers up to $2,000.
For the plan to work, customers must return their takeout containers to restaurants.
Using misleading composting labels will soon be against the law
The contamination problem is not unique to Boulder, or the Front Range. In an effort to address this problem, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) commissioned a statewide report, called the Organics Management Plan, to provide policymakers a framework for decreasing the amount of waste ending up in landfills.
The recommendations influenced two statewide labeling bills, which Gov. Jared Polis recently signed into law. The laws mandate that starting next summer products marketed as “compostable” must be approved by a third-party verifier and have a new, special label. The hope is that the new labels will help reduce contamination because Coloradans will know, for certain, which items are compostable.
Additionally, starting in January 2024, using misleading composting labels as a marketing tactic will be prohibited in the state of Colorado.
Misleading — or “greenwashed” — labels often use phrases such as “biodegradable” or “sustainably sourced,” or use green and beige colors and symbols that make an item appear eco-friendly even when it’s not.
According to the Organics Management Plan, Colorado’s compost facilities have the capacity to process 127,000 to 157,000 additional tons without major investments or expansions.
“Colorado is working in that direction right now with the truth and labeling law that was just recently passed,” Sander said, “making sure that the consumer is able to find truly compostable products and not look-alikes.”
The goal is to get back to only using certified compostables.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “That’s going to take some time to get back to that level.”