50,000 pounds of food is wasted in Routt County each week; local composting initiative could change that
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A recent study found that about 40% of the food thrown away in Routt County is edible and could be put to other uses, instead of rotting in the landfill.
Local waste management experts Cameron Poole and Cameron Hawkins authored the study as a way of evaluating food waste in the area and finding ways to reduce it or divert that waste to composting facilities. It also will help to inform a recent initiative to establish a large-scale compost operation in the county.
The two analyzed surveys from about 50 households across the county, including those from Hayden, Oak Creek and Clark, which measured the amount and type of food residents wasted.
Poole, general manager for Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs’ food services, acknowledged her study has several limitations. Among them is that 50 households represent a relatively small proportion of Routt County, which has a population of about 25,000.
However, Poole aimed to fill what she sees as a gap in food waste research, most of which has focused on larger cities.
“There aren’t many studies that I could find that look at a rural area,” she said.
Her study is modeled after a 2012 report from the National Resource Defense Council, which found that up to 40% of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten each year.
Locally, the average person in Routt County throws away about 2 pounds of food per week, according to the surveys. Multiplying that amount by the 25,000 residents in Routt County, locals toss about 50,000 pounds of food in the garbage per week.
Such large amounts are not unique to the Yampa Valley. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency listed food waste as the largest municipal solid waste component in landfills.
Until two years ago, Twin Enviro Resources at the landfill west of Milner collected food waste, but a lack of demand did not make the program economically feasible.
All that waste may soon have a more environmentally friendly place to go. This year, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council published its Waste Diversion Strategic Plan. One of the plan’s long-term goals is to develop a compost facility within Routt County for residents and businesses.
Both the city and county have officially supported the plan, and county commissioners granted the Sustainability Council $22,000 last year to help implement waste diversion programs.
Compost facilities elsewhere in the state have seen mixed success. The Pitkin County Landfill, which turned a profit of $370,925 in 2017 from its composting operation, has become a poster child for such initiatives.
But just a few towns over, the city of Glenwood Springs is considering eliminating its operation after recording losses of more than $329,000 each year, according to a report from The Aspen Times.
The cost of a compost facility varies by its size and the technology used. Hawkins and Poole favored an aerobic digestion system, which creates methane that can be sold as renewable energy. An anaerobic digestion system can cost upwards of $1 million, but Poole sees that as an investment that could have big returns, as exemplified in Pitkin County’s operation.
“It’s too valuable of a resource to be ending up in our waste streams,” Poole said.
As part of the sustainability council’s strategic plan, an organics recycling task force has been formed to evaluate the feasibility of this and other systems to determine which would work best in Routt County.
Gail Garey has been leading the task force, composed of community members as well as representatives from the city, the county and the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.
While she said it is too early to determine what a local composting facility would look like, Garey has received positive support from across the community and is confident it would be profitable.
“It’s good for the environment. It’s good for our economy,” she said.
The strategic plan mentions some smaller-scale composting initiatives around Steamboat, using them as a “success story.” Last year, the Leadership Steamboat program raised $15,000 to place three composting vessels at LiftUp of Routt County, Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and the Steamboat Springs Middle School.
According to the strategic plan, each of those vessels receives up to 50 pounds of food waste per day.
The local food waste study points to the idea that Routt County residents want to see a large-scale composting program. The majority of respondents — 65% of households surveyed — supported such a program.
“We have a lot of buy-in from businesses and residents in town,” added Hawkins, the sustainability council’s waste diversion director.
Until then, she sees education as a way to reduce local waste. Another goal of the study is to encourage more prudent behavior when it comes to buying and preparing food, such as reducing portion sizes and making sure to eat leftovers.
“It makes people think about their habits and aware of how much they waste,” Hawkins said.
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