Colorado sends two million tons of organics to landfills each year—that’s more than five times what it diverts for beneficial land use. Or to peer through another lens, Colorado composts a meager 6% of its wasted organics. That low capture rate is due to barriers not uncommon in other states: lacking organics collection and processing infrastructure and a contamination problem attributed largely to consumers’ misunderstanding of what discards they should set out for pick up.
To bump recovery of clean organic materials, prime for compost, the "Centennial State” has passed two bills. SB23-253 sets strict labeling requirements on products sold as compostable and certain requirements around third-party certification.
SB23-191 aims to jumpstart composting infrastructure statewide, directing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to evaluate and create a plan for organics diversion and provide local governments guidance to identify types of infrastructure fitting for their jurisdictions as well as basic tools to help them build that infrastructure.
“We believe that the passage of SB23-253 will go a long way toward reducing consumer confusion about what goes into the organics collection bin by eliminating misleading labeling and requiring certification of compostable products,” says Dan Matsch, Eco-Cycle Compost Department director. The nonprofit was involved in drafting the language of both bills and does other work to advance the state’s composting efforts, focusing now on an innovative model on Boulder farms that it aspires to take beyond Boulder, but more on that later.
Bill backers see potential for the tools to be provided through SB23-191 to empower Colorado’s waste sector to take meaningful leaps –maybe co-locate composting operations at landfills, starting with yard trimmings collection and, with experience, adding residential and commercial food waste to the mix.
Among main provisions of SB23-253 (to roll out between January and July 2024):
- Producers can only represent products as compostable if they are certified as such by an independent, third-party verification body.
- Products must comply with labeling standards that ensure they are easily distinguishable as certified compostable at point of sale, point of use, in public sorting areas, and processing facilities.
- Makers of products that are not certified compostable cannot use tinting, colors, labeling, images, or words that are required for products with compost certification. Nor can they use similar visuals to imply the product will eventually break down.
Among main provisions of SB23-191:
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment must study the feasibility of mandating organic materials diversion from landfills and report its findings by August 1, 2024. The study must:
- Identify needed organics diversion infrastructure and create an infrastructure development plan.
- Recommend policies and regulations to enable diversion.
- Identify opportunities for end-market development of organic materials.
Alex Truelove, legislation & advocacy manager Biodegradable Products Institute, anticipates SB23-253 will effectively target what he calls “bad actors” by requiring third-party certification and prohibiting misleading/unverifiable terminology.
“As a result, I hope composters will find themselves more likely to accept certified compostable products as they'll worry less about 'lookalike' or 'soundalike' contaminants,” he says.
Recycle Colorado Executive Director Liz Chapman would not comment on SB23-253 beyond to say the nonprofit’s board of directors took a "no position" stand on the bill due to lacking consensus around its provisions.
But SB23-191 has the statewide organization’s full support.
“SB23-191 will result in more specific and detailed recommendations [than laid out in the Statewide Organics Management Plan] about what size and type of compost facilities should be built in what subregions within the four regions described in the Statewide Plan. This will allow local jurisdictions to work towards establishing those facilities by understanding what it will cost to build the appropriate size operation for that area,” Chapman says.
Eco-Cycle is developing a community compost system in Boulder County, partnering with several regenerative farmers to create on-farm composting demonstrations leveraging a simple aerated static pile system.
“We want to underscore how valuable it is to have many smaller compost manufacturing facilities distributed around a state or county rather than one or two larger facilities to which organic materials must by trucked and then the finished compost must be transported to relatively distant markets,” Matsch says.
The ambition is to leverage the model to build out networks beyond Boulder.
“We are working to create new composting infrastructure from backyard to on-farm to onsite (for campuses and large generators) to commercial-scale operations that are mission-driven and publicly accountable,” he says.
Currently five states (CA, WA, MD, MN, and CA) mandate third-party certification and prohibit misleading terminology. And Colorado now joins Washington and California in requiring colors to distinguish certified compostable products.
Another policy trend is emerging; a few municipalities now require non-reusable food ware in restaurants to be certified compostable.
“I think we'll continue to see states embrace certification and labeling requirements. And I think we'll also see localities continue to embrace food ware ordinances, which carry the benefits of higher food waste diversion from landfills and towards compost, and reducing contamination of compost streams by non-compostable single-use plastics,” Truelove says.
Colorado State Senator, Lisa Cutter was a primary sponsor of both bills, and is a long-time backer of the state’s diversion and reuse movement.
“We’ve worked hard over the last few years to develop zero waste policies and infrastructure in Colorado, and our bills are a logical next step. Organics diversion and the creation of compost keeps methane-emitting materials out of the landfill, which is hugely beneficial in our efforts to mitigate climate change,” she says.