Julie Mach of Elements Mountain Compost moved to Colorado in 2009, fresh out of college with an open mind to a new career.
She was hired to complete environmental work, mainly on public lands and learned quickly the educational and lifestyle gaps that influence waste diversion and recycling behaviors.
Speaking about her experience at Recycle Colorado's 2022 Summit for Recycling, she told attendees: "I had a great friend in town. His parents lived in town, and I would go over and watch football at their house and take a six pack of beer and then I would take my empty beer bottles home with me. Salida [Colo.] had a great recycling program. After a couple of months of that they asked me, 'what are you doing with those beer bottles? Are you making an art project, are you?' I said no, I'm recycling them. And they had lived in Salida for decades. They were from Texas originally had never recycled in their entire lives. And I was just astounded."
Mach grew up in California, which she credited for her penchant for recycling and passion for the environment. With a grip on recycling, Mach then taught her friend and his family how to compost.
She continued, "[They said] they loved gardening but didn't know anything about composting. So, I showed them and got them going. A couple of months later they came back and they say they had one single grocery bag size full of trash every week. And that's it. They were able to divert so much of their stuff, and that's one household. They were open to this education, and I think that's such a huge component and huge opportunity for everybody working in our industry,"
With a focus on creating behavioral changes, Mach founded Elements Mountain Compost in 2014. While growth has been small - Mach still juggles a full-time job while running her business - the impact that has been made on the Salida community has been immeasurable.
The small, rural community that 5,500 residents call home is located in Colorado's backcountry at an elevation of 7,000 feet. While Chaffee County has about 20,000 residents, there is no widespread organics collection.
"We don't have any other composters operating in our area or really within a couple of hours of Salida - at least nobody focused on food waste," she explained. "There's a lot of opportunity. I think many communities in rural Colorado are facing this issue where they don't have somebody to service their composting organic waste. So, we're excited to be able to do that not only in Salida but potentially in some adjacent communities we're working on."
Determined to close the gap in service, Elements Mountain Compost launched a residential drop-off program for food waste which currently has about 150 customers. The company also provides services to about 25 residents, grocery stores and commercial composters.
She said that her first piece of equipment was a Ford Ranger, which Mach would use to pull trailer, she quickly realized the inefficiency and upgraded.
"We've now got a truck with a lifter on it. We use the big toter bins to collect compost both at our commercial sites and at our residential drop-off sites," she said. "That truck and that build was a lifesaver."
Along with food waste, Elements Mountain Compost also collects yard waste and wood waste and hosts a public leaf drop-off every year. Tree services bring woodchips to be used as a primary carbon source.
Mach added that working with events on waste diversion lead to a surge in revenue in the past year, which has presented challenges with managing compostable products.
"When we've got a small system, that balance of compostable products versus food waste is a little out of whack right when you bring in that volume from a big event," she said. "We're constantly tweaking our processes to make sure we can handle the sort of influx."
Since its inception, the company developed relationships with Colorado's cannabis industry. It launched a program spring 2022 that uses aerated static piles (ASP) for cannabis waste.
"We just started piloting with one of our local cannabis growers - a big industrial cannabis operation. They're harvesting 150 pot plants a day," Mach said. "If you can imagine, once they pulled the buds and the valuable part off, that's quite a bit of green waste material that they have. That was being bagged and going into a roll-off trailer that was going to landfill once a week."
Mach explained that while financial institutions might be hesitant to provide funding for organics-driven businesses, micro-lending options for agricultural businesses have assisted her with securing a trommel and other business necessities. However, money isn't the only factor. A company should invest in its workforce as well.
"We hear a lot about this in rural communities - that our workforce can't afford to live there," she said. "That's a huge component of building a sustainable business and being able to create jobs that keep people in the community."
Finally, she stressed the importance of enjoying the entire process along the way.
"I've been sifting a lot of compost and inhaling a lot of compost and dust and things lately and I go home and my ears and my eyes are just full of compost all the time," she concluded. "We also get dirty and have fun. This is a key part of the compost world - you're dealing with dirt. So, be comfortable in that and enjoy it."
Editor's Note: This is part three of a three-part series that explores how three compost businesses in Colorado. In Part One, Jamie Blanchard-Poling explains how beneficial partnerships can assist business owners with navigating relationships. In Part Two, Winn Cowman of Cowgirl Compost takes readers on a trip to Steamboat Springs in Yampa Valley. Part Three takes readers to high country in Salida with Julie Mach of Elements Mountain Composting.