New Compost Program Takes Root

By Matthew Van Deventer
Photo by Andrew Morris

The City of Denver is revitalizing its composting program in order to accommodate residents’ desire to go green.

In 2008 Denver Solid Waste Management (DSWM), a division of the Department of Public Works, performed a waste composition sampling funded by a state grant. Before the analysis, the assumption was that Colorado’s garbage was 25–30 percent organic material that could be compostable, which would have been in line with the national average.

However, the results of the analysis were dramatically different.

Results showed that over 50 percent of garbage thrown away in Denver could be composted, explains Charlotte Pitt, a manager at DSWM who overseas the composting program. 

The study also found that residents wanted to be greener, and they wanted the city’s help doing it.

“Waste is one of the easiest ways we can help people do that. We can’t give someone a loan to buy a Prius,” said Pitt. “But we can pick up their waste every week and if we give them different containers and give them the opportunity to separate it, we’ve made it really easy for them.”

Funding for the first pilot composting program began to dry up in 2010. It was scheduled to discontinue, but participants petitioned the Mayor’s office, demanding the program be continued. As a result, the mechanism to charge for the service was instituted in March 2010 and the program moved to fee-based. Into 2013, DSWM sought out additional funds for upfront expansion costs for items like trucks and carts—to no avail.

It wasn’t until DSWM started working with the Department for Environmental Health that they were able to find the funding they needed, and in 2014 they expanded the program.

Currently, residents in select neighborhoods can participate in the pilot program for $100 a year. Participants get a small kitchen pail, a bundle of compostable liners, and a larger outdoor bin that is set out once a week for pick-up. 

Items such as produce, yard debris, coffee grounds, dairy products, fish and fish products, meat and meat products, soiled paper products, and other processed foods can all be left on the curb for composting. 

On average, Denver produces over 200,000 tons of waste every year. According to the Denver Trash and Recycling site, 58 percent of garbage (116-121,000 tons) could be diverted from landfills and be composted instead. 

The resurrected pilot program started off with two routes in 2014. By the end of the year over 1,900 tons of compostable material was collected from 4,400 participating homes. As of Feb. 2015 there were 6,000 homes participating over four routes. Pitt hopes they will eventually collect upwards of 4,000 tons of organic material.

The organic material is taken to a composting facility in Keensburg, CO, about 40 miles northeast of Denver. “We are the biggest organic recycler in the state of Colorado,” says Andy Roth, who is a senior account executive at the facility, A1 Organics. “Our aim is to offer a product that is environmentally friendly and reusable and safe to put in your garden.” 

In Keensburg, the organic material is blended with a wood product, such as clippings, tree limbs, and other yard debris.

That mixture is put into rows where it is turned over and decomposes with heat and moisture, both of which are constantly monitored. Temperatures reach upwards of 170 degrees. As the material cools, the final product of mineral rich compost comes to shape. From there, it’s Roth’s job to figure out what to do with the final product. He usually sells it as a soil amendment to retail landscapers, golf courses, and to the Colorado Department of Transportation for construction projects.

Matt Gray with his city-issued compost bin.Matt Gray became a participant in the pilot program after learning about it last December. He had composted at home since he bought his house five years ago, but he still had leftover yard debris. 

Usually Gray took the debris to one of Denver’s several leaf drop-offs around the city, but he didn’t always get there before they closed for the season. He sees neighbors with the same problem.

“All the Denver leaf drop places are all [closed], so you’re left dumping it in the alley dumpster or finding a place to part it off,” says Gray. “So most people are just going to leave it in the dumpster. . . I see it all the time.”

Gray has spent upwards of $60 a year in gas and drop-off fees—not to mention the time it takes to get to a drop-off site that is usually on the outskirts of town.

“It’s totally worth it, more than worth it,” he says concerning singing up for the pilot composting program. “I wouldn’t want to pay much more than that, but I didn’t mind paying that hundred bucks at all, partly because I feel better about it. I mean, we take out the trash maybe once every two weeks; sometimes it’s not even full.”

Gray managed to get rid of the year’s worth of yard waste he’s been collecting in the two months he’s been participating in the program.

In a recent DSWM survey of Denver composters, the average participant reported a 50–75 percent reduction in garbage they throw away.

“If you’re an avid composter and recycler, the only things left in your trash are things like plastic fill from packaging, maybe the odd piece of Styrofoam and that’s really it,” notes Pitt who composts also and says the children’s applesauce pouches are her “last little nemesis.”

Pitt hopes that as participation grows so will the infrastructure and competitiveness in Denver’s composting industry, thus lowering or eliminating any fees. However, that decision ultimately rests in the hands of the Mayor’s office. ■  


Visit to see if you’re eligible to participate in Denver’s pilot compost program and for more information on composting and at-home composting.