Ask Eartha: What is compostable in Summit County?

 In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha,

My mom lives in Denver, and she can compost man-made products, like BPI certified cups and plates. Here in Summit, I’ve heard that only organic matter is accepted for composting. Why the difference?

-Chloe, Dillon

Thanks for your question this week, Chloe. We humans sure are good at taking something super straightforward and complicating it. The dictionary defines composting as a process in which decayed organic material is used to improve soil. Pretty simple, huh? But with the introduction of these manufactured, so-called “compostable” products, the process becomes a bit more technologically sophisticated. But don’t be discouraged! Composting is a great habit to get into, and our local guidelines are easy to follow. To help you out, here are Eartha’s three composting commandments for Summit County.

First thing’s first:

How do you know what is “compostable” and what is not?

Rule #1: If a human can eat and digest it, it is compostable.

Rule #2: If it is organic matter, it is compostable. Organic matter refers to any material that was once living. This includes bones, sticks, leaves, banana peels, etc. Even tea bags and coffee filters — once trees themselves — are okay.

If you’re a backyard composter, these rules are all you need to know for what to put in your compost pile, with a few exceptions. You’ll want to avoid meat and dairy as they can attract furry visitors. And while these are good rules of thumb for understanding what can go in your pile, determining the perfect ratio of food scraps to yard waste is a little bit trickier.

If you’re composting through a local subscription program — either drop-off at the Breck or Frisco recycling centers or curbside pick-up — any type of food waste is fair game. Even the block of cheese you forgot about for the past three months.

This brings us to Rule #3: Know thy local facility.

As you’ve identified, composting guidelines can vary from community to community. It’s important to understand what type of program exists where you are so that you compost correctly. As far as Denver vs. Summit County goes, we simply use different composting facilities. In Summit County, the material collected from Curb to Compost’s residential program, HC3’s Food Scrap Recycling program and services provided by local haulers ends up at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park. It’s organized into giant outdoor piles called windrows and left to cook. While paper products are technically compostable, they’re not accepted here because they’re lightweight and blow away, creating a mess.

And what about those plastic cups and utensils that claim to be 100 percent compostable? Well, this is another instance when it’s important to know your local rules. These materials don’t break down readily in our high alpine environment, leaving pieces of pseudo-plastic in the finished product. Not surprisingly, this contamination decreases the value of the compost. Summit County doesn’t accept manufactured compostables because it wants to continue producing the highest quality compost available. However, there are other places around the country that do accept plant-based plastics for composting. It is important to remember that these compostable products are new on the market and additional research is underway to determine where and how they break down best.

The good news is access to composting programs is increasing around the country. If you’re traveling outside of Summit County, resources to locate composters include the U.S. EPA website or Find A Composter. And if you live in Summit County but you don’t compost yet, consider signing up for a program. All you need to know are three simple rules. For more information about composting locally, check out the High Country Conservation Center’s website.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at info@highcountryconservation.org.

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