Growing up, Amanda Russcol’s parents taught her the importance of a then-unconventional practice: They would save every unused food scrap, from apple cores to eggshells to potato peels, and toss them into a separate bin instead of the trash. They then threw the scraps into the woods behind her house, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Russcol took the habit to heart. In college, she kept a bin full of red wiggler worms from the local bait shop under her desk, ready to chew through her discarded celery stalks and cucumber peels (an unexpected surprise for her roommate, who discovered the bin midway through the year).

Ruscol, who now lives in Cheesman Park, has been composting her entire life. Though she still keeps a backyard composter and a worm bin, she also uses a less hands-on method available to many Denverites for a modest fee: the city’s compost program, which allows residents to toss organic waste in a separate green bin that city trucks then haul away with the rest of the trash and recycling.

Denver Composts is one of a wave of efforts to get the city on track to reduce the amount of waste it creates, a record that (literally) stinks.

The problem is nationwide: Over 93 percent of the 40.7 million tons of food waste that the U.S. generates each year ends up in a landfill. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t rot away harmlessly when heaped with plastics, metals, and glass. In a landfill, organic matter is often trapped in plastic bags or covered by other trash, and deprived of the oxygen, moisture, and bacteria it needs to properly decompose. It may sit there for up to decades, and when it does finally break down, it emits the potent greenhouse gas methane. Trashed organic material is thus an often-overlooked—and preventable—driver of global climate change.

The solution lies not only in reusing, reducing, and recycling, but in composting. And now, that does not have to entail bins of scraps or worm boxes under college dorm desks. American cities have begun to recognize that compost pick-up programs can contribute immensely to addressing the waste crisis. Some cities—like San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Boulder—are working toward ambitious “zero-waste” plans, and composting is usually a keystone piece of their goal.

But Denver lags behind. 

Composting is the key to waste reduction

Ten years ago, when Denver started trying to get serious about sustainability, it had to reckon with a dismal recycling and composting rate. When Mayor Hancock hired the city’s first chief sustainability officer, Jerry Tinianow, in 2012, only 14 percent of the city’s waste (measured by weight) was diverted from the landfill via composting and recycling (at that point, Denver Composts was still a pilot program available to only a few neighborhoods). That was far behind the national rate (which has hovered around 34 percent for the past decade, and was at 35 percent as of 2017). What’s more, the city’s 2010 Waste Master Plan found that organic material was Denver’s greatest opportunity for waste diversion: 14 percent of the landfill waste stream (by weight) was food waste and 29 percent was yard waste. 

“Everyone knew that composting was needed and if we could get even half of what was compostable to actually be composted that would make a huge difference,” says Tinianow, who is now a private sustainability consultant. 

Recognizing the need, Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI, formerly Denver Public Works) began scaling the pilot compost pickup program up. As of 2017, Denver Composts is available to all single-family residences within city limits. You can sign up online for $10 per month, and it’s a heck of a lot easier than carefully balancing the diets of worms in a bin and gardening with the byproduct (plus, it allows residents to compost meat and other smelly scraps that would otherwise attract rodents sitting in a backyard bin). 

The city provides a green bin the same size as those for trash and recycling, as well as a smaller kitchen pail with biodegradable bags for food scraps. Once per week, trucks collect the compost on the same day as regularly scheduled trash service. On average, according to DOTI’s 2019 data, households that composted generated 20 fewer pounds of trash per week than households that did not.

After pickup, the compost is taken to A1 Organics in Keenesburg, about 40 miles north of Denver. The facility uses the “windrow” method to accelerate decomposition, piling the material into long rows, monitoring its temperature, and turning it for optimal exposure to oxygen and heat. A1 then sells the soil-ready compost back to farmers and consumers across the state. At the initiative of the city, ACE Hardware stores now sell Denver’s Own EcoGro compost to gardeners, plant-lovers, and lawn-devotees in Denver.

Composting is viewed as a key solution to the waste crisis because it’s a unilateral win for the environment. It not only saves organic matter from the landfill, but puts it to positive use. Once the waste is broken down by oxygen and pests, biodegradable materials can act as a probiotic for the soil, adding vital nutrients and improving its capacity to support plant life while reducing the need for chemical fertilizer. Colorado’s clay-like, erosion-prone soil can stand to benefit. Recognizing this, in 2008, Denver Water began requiring new landscaping projects to add compost to their soil, recognizing that the compost could help reduce demands on the state’s strained water supply.

When those microbes break down organic matter in the ground, they aren’t just creating a healthy environment for plants, but also improving soil’s capacity to store carbon. In short, composting organic matter can help offset the CO2 emissions that drive global climate change, instead of contributing to them when landfilled. 

Plus, the compost processing cycle has a comparatively small carbon footprint. Unlike recycling, compost is never shipped to China, and the final product is heavy enough so as to make trucking it long distances unfeasible. Thus, it’s a relatively local, closed-loop system.

To top it all off, people who compost often say they pay more attention to how much and what type of food products they consume. Russcol, for example, is trying to get down to zero waste. William Detwiler, who lives in Capitol Hill, used to have a backyard composter, but has had to find DIY solutions since moving to a condominium (he currently throws his compost in a neighboring complex’s bin). “It definitely makes you be more mindful,” he says. “Between that and recycling, I’m looking at things I buy.”

Pushing for a comprehensive waste policy

As of February 3, just shy of 23,000 households are participating in the city’s compost program. According to DOTI’s recycling manager Charlotte Pitt, that’s a growth rate of 20 percent each year. Still, according to Pitt, that’s less than 13 percent of eligible households, and compost made up only 4 percent of the residential waste stream in 2019. The city set a goal to reach the national average for waste diversion by the end of 2020: 34 percent of waste diverted from the landfill and into composting and recycling. At of the end of 2019, Denver was only at about 23 percent, Pitt says. And she thinks improving by 11 percentage points over the next 10 months is a long shot.

Pitt says the city program has no specific goal for the composting rate, but rather wants to steadily increase participation. It would be great to have the whole city sign up at once, Pitt says, but DOTI lacks the collection resources to support a surge: staff, trucks, equipment, bins, carts, and money.

And while Pitt says the department has pushed composting through flyers, social media, and collaborative initiatives like the Compost Challenge (in which volunteers try to recruit their neighbors to the program) they have a limited marketing budget, so not everyone is aware that compost pickup is even an option.

Part of the reason Denver lags behind its composting peers, however, lies in the fact that the market has not yet majorly incentivized waste diversion. Many major coastal cities have much graver constraints on the available space to dump trash. Massachusetts, for example, is faced with landfills shutting down due to space constraints and pressure from neighborhood activists who oppose the exposure to methane pollution. And exporting its trash to other states is expensive. The whole state thus has an economic, as well as environmental, incentive to compost and recycle.

Denver, on the other hand, is surrounded by open plains and forested foothills that give us decades of landfill space further away from dense neighborhoods that have the political capital to organize to close them. The biggest landfill in the state, the Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site in Aurora, estimated that it had another 125 years of space, according to a 2018 Colorado Sun investigation.

Christi Turner, a former environmental journalist and advocate, thinks the city’s goal of reaching the national average, set in 2015, was lackluster from the start. “Shooting to be average in five years is not a goal,” she says. “And there was no plan to get there, and here we are in 2020 and we have not gotten there.”

Turner’s main critique is that the city’s program (like all of Denver waste programs) currently only serves single-family homes or apartment complexes with fewer than seven units. Bigger condos, apartment buildings, and businesses must find their own contractor if they want to compost, just as they must find their own trash and recycling service. But few do, since private compost haulers tend to be expensive, and traditionally, homeowners’ associations or property managers must take the initiative, manage the program, educate residents, and then bill them for the extra cost.

When Turner—who lived in a condominium herself and took her kitchen scraps to a friend’s house to be composted—found out the city had no plans to expand the service to apartments, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Three years ago, she started Scraps Mile High, which now offers compost pickup to fill the gap in the city’s services. As an added green bonus, a Scraps staff member picks up compost via bike and hauls it in a trailer to dropoff sites around town. The compost eventually ends up at A1 Organics, the same facility that Denver Composts uses.

People living in apartment buildings can sign up individually for Scraps, but Turner says if enough people in a building compost enough of their waste, they can reduce demand for trash, and possibly offset the extra cost of the service (residential composting starts at $20 per month). Scraps now uses three trikes, six bikes, and one van to service more than 600 members, and is expanding to other areas of the city.

“Our goal as a company is to help create a city where in five years the person who doesn’t compost and the business who doesn’t compost is the outlier,” Turner says.

Pitt says the city wants to get there, too, and is taking a look at other policy measures such as a pay-as-you-throw program, wherein residents would be charged more for throwing things in the trash. Such a program has risks—namely, it would require a hefty education component to avoid contamination of compost with inorganic material. (A1 can’t take loads that consist of more than 1 percent non-biodegradable material such as plastics, glass, and cardboard. A fruit sticker that accidentally ends up in the compost bin won’t ruin the rest of the load, but it may not break down even in the finished product.)

Turner thinks it’s possible to get it right, and hopes the city sets its goal to “something much more ambitious, with an education program. People in Denver would certainly understand what’s at stake; they would get it,” she says. “Somehow there’s a disconnect between our waste practices and our love of preserving this amazing state that we have. So I think there’s a lot the city could do to market that idea better.”