Cleaning the stream

The rules around composting have changed for the whole Front Range — here’s what that means

Steve Klemish driving a composting truck in Longmont
Steve Klemish on his way to pick up 800 organic collection bins on his “Monday east” route. Photo by Will Matuska.

Steve Klemish winds through Longmont streets looking for the containers with a green lid. 

He knows exactly where he’s going without a map — he’s driven around the city collecting waste for 15 years. His truck, only three years old, already has 38,000 miles on it.  

Klemish sits in a clean cab with a small American flag on the dash. A trio of Little Tree air fresheners and a dream catcher hang from a ceiling-mounted radio. 

“I take such pride in my truck,” Klemish says, describing how he climbs a step ladder to hand-scrub the white exterior with an old t-shirt.  

Cleaning is a theme in Klemish’s life.

Klemish has collected both recycling and trash for the City, but jumped on the chance to be a part of Longmont’s residential composting program when it launched six years ago. He’s now the City’s lead compost driver.

Klemish likes his job, but he’s worried about a new policy change from A1 Organics, the state’s largest organic recycler. 

In late February, A1 Organics announced it will only accept food scraps, yard and plant trimmings, and three-gallon Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA)-approved compostable bags used to collect food scraps. Starting April 1, the company will no longer take compostable packaging and cutlery, in addition to “non-traditional compostables” like paper towels, napkins, shredded paper or pizza boxes — all things that Klemish picks up regularly.   

“Now that we have to change, I don’t know how this is gonna work,” he says. “I just hope it doesn’t get ugly.” 

Marti Matsch, deputy director of Boulder-based recycling organization Eco-Cycle, says the new policy affects the entire Front Range. 

“It’s such a big change,” Matsch says, “and it has so many effects on so many different people,” including haulers, municipalities, commercial businesses and residents.  

A1 claims to divert more than 425,000 tons of waste yearly from Colorado landfills, producing compost, mulch and other landscaping materials the public can purchase. 

In a press release, A1 wrote that the change was made because food scrap material coming in (10% of total material A1 accepts) “is too contaminated [with plastic, glass and non-organic material] to process effectively and meet the quality standards for finished compost.”

Reasons for the change in policy include “certified” compostable items (think: biodegradable plastic packaging) not composting fully or quickly enough and contamination impacting resale quality. Accepting “packaging and service ware,” like single-use cutlery, also limits the company’s ability to sell compost used to grow crops certified as USDA Organic.

Clinton Sander, marketing manager at A1, says the food scrap stream is “most challenging” because there are many touchpoints where contamination can occur — from haulers not fully cleaning trucks to residents misunderstanding what can be composted. Other streams (like cannabis waste), he says, have more control measures in place. 

A1 started charging haulers contamination and reloading fees last August because of problems. Sander told Boulder Weekly last fall that the company saw up to 50% reduction of loads from some waste haulers after the fee implementation. 

Because A1 started getting more selective with the materials it would accept last year, Matsch says she wasn’t surprised by the new policy. But, she says Eco-Cycle is getting “lots of feedback from people who are upset” about the policy change. 

“We fully understand this is confusing for people,” she says. “People may perceive [the policy change] as a step backward, but it really isn’t — it’s a step forward.”

Sander says there’s high potential for creating quality compost and greenhouse gas avoidance from the food scrap stream. 

“We have to collect [food scraps] to get these materials out of landfills,” he says, where rotting organic material releases gasses, including methane, that warm the climate, “but not at the cost of contaminating the finished product.”

Communicating with residents

In Longmont, Klemish is collecting about 800 organic collection bins from residents in the southeast side of the city who opted-in to the composting program. Nearly 9,000 households total are participating.

In 2022, Longmont says its curbside composting pickup program diverted 3,000 tons of organics from the landfill. Most of the material picked up through the program is yard waste like grass clippings, but food scraps make it in too.  

The City of Boulder, which mandates composting for property owners and businesses, diverted more than 11,000 tons of organics in 2020, according to the most recently reported data on its website. 

For the most part, Klemish says, “My residents behave. They compost the way they’re supposed to.”

a composting truck from the city of longmont waste services
Photo by Will Matuska

He knows the residents on his routes and their composting habits — whether they are reliable or not. He says “Monday east,” this day’s route, usually doesn’t have problems.

Klemish pulls over and uses the truck’s mechanical arm to collect an organics bin. “These people, they’re elderly. They’ve never pulled a stunt,” he says.  

Sometimes people will come out and ask Klemish questions — which has helped him both educate and build relationships with his residents. 

The following Wednesday he’ll see Jackie, a woman in her mid-90s going through a third round of blood cancer. If he doesn’t see the TV on and the blinds are drawn at the kitchen window, he goes to the door and checks on her. 

And there’s Devin, an elementary-aged kid Klemish finds waiting outside every other Wednesday to hear his truck’s impressive horn.  

The City is educating residents about the composting changes through a variety of means, including its website, newsletter and an insert in monthly utility bills, says Charles Kamenides, waste services manager at the City of Longmont. 

In addition, Kamenides says some of the education will come from “the men and women who drive our compost collection vehicles,” like Klemish. 

Klemish voiced concern about taking the brunt of residents’ confusion following the policy change. But the few residents he’s spoken to (nearly a dozen) have understood the changes — they mainly want to compost yard waste.

Kamenides anticipates the composting program may lose some residents due to the restriction for compostable products, but assumes most customers will stay in the program. 

Growing pains

Verity Noble, owner of Nude Foods Market in Boulder, is taking a different approach to cleaning the compost stream — by not offering compostable plastics and packaging in the first place. 

Noble opened the “zero-waste” grocery store in September 2021 with the goal of avoiding single-use compostable plastics like the ones A1 is no longer accepting. 

The market offers composting for any organic products purchased in the store, especially food that spoils. Noble estimates they compost at least two five gallon buckets a day. 

Nearly everything in the market is packaged in glass jars packed on-site by staff. Customers pay a deposit fee per jar, then bring the jar back the next time they shop to be washed and reused. 

“One of the biggest things that we need people to change is the way they consume if we’re going to solve our waste problems,” says Noble, who plans on opening five more stores across the Front Range by the end of 2027. 

By not including compostable packaging, Noble says she creates a more valuable compost — the kind A1 wants more of with its new policy. 

Jamie Harkins, sustainability senior manager of circular economies at the City of Boulder, says the City is shifting to reusables at events like the Boulder Creek Festival to help meet the Universal Zero Waste Ordinance.

“Switching to reusables saves natural resources, energy and money — all while preventing waste in the first place,” he says.

Matsch at Eco-Cycle is working with stakeholders across the Front Range on the Colorado Clean Compost Campaign — an effort to provide consistent messaging, guidelines and education materials for customers to limit confusion.

She is hopeful that the policy change will create higher-quality compost.

“This is just a growing pain that really pushes us toward a much more accessible, affordable and effective way of collecting organic materials throughout the state,” she says. 

Klemish says he doesn’t want to see Longmont’s program fail. When April 1 comes around, residents can trust Klemish will be working to keep the stream clean.

“I don’t care how long or how far behind I get,” he says, “I will be popping lids.”