Grand County Solid Waste Special Service District Board member Bob Greenberg beat other board members to the cab of the district's new loader at the Klondike Landfill near Canyonlands Field Airport. The Caterpillar 962 loader replaces an older 1979 model, which will be declared excess and sold via bidding procedures. Grand County Solid Waste Special Service District Director Debby Barton said the new machine will meet Tier IV standards that require significant emission reductions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that are significant contributors to air pollution. [Photo courtesy of Debby Barton]

Thirty years ago, the Moab Chamber of Commerce named the Moab Landfill the “World’s Most Scenic Landfill,” bringing international attention to the town’s tourism industry. Today, the Solid Waste Special Service District is finding creative solutions to visitor numbers that are maxing out its waste-processing capacity.

The Solid Waste Special Service District (SWSSD) submitted a final draft for a new Compost Operating Plan Demonstration Project to the state a week ago, and it hopes to receive final approval in December.

Earlier this month, the district received verbal approval from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to proceed with ground preparation at the project site near the Moab Landfill off Sand Flats Road, and SWSSD Director Debby Barton said new access roads are already under construction.

“If we are on track, (the composting project) should produce materials sometime in late summer, if not sooner,” she said.

The Community Recycling Center is operating at a loss, which is covered by revenues from landfill fees. Composting could not only make the recycling program more sustainable by increasing the SWSSD’s revenue stream, Barton noted, but also further demonstrate the community’s innovative capacities.

The brainchild of city, county and community leaders, the composting project is a win on many fronts, Moab Folk Festival Producer Board President Melissa Schmaedick said.

The festival has continued to innovate each year toward becoming a “net-zero” event, Moab Folk Festival Assistant Director Cassie Paup said. For example, it doesn’t allow plastic water bottles, and offsets energy costs by purchasing wind power.

Last year, the festival teamed up with Eco-Products in Boulder, Colorado, to remove food service waste, including packaging, serving plates, cups and utensils from its waste stream.

“They were very generous and jumped right on board, and helped us ‘green’ our green rooms and our food service,” Paup said.

Once festival organizers had purchased compostable products, she said they realized that they had to figure out how to process them into compost with the food waste.

They contacted Utah State University-Moab Sustainable Communities Extension Specialist Dr. Roslynn Brain, who put them in touch with one of her counterparts at USU in Logan, Service Learning and Student Sustainability Program Director Kate Stephens. Stephens was immediately supportive, and sent a team from USU to help and transport the festival’s compostable waste stream to Logan for processing in the industrial composter on campus.

The effort was a resounding success, and highlighted a need in Moab for a similar facility, Paup said.

“It’s sad that we had to go to Logan to find a place to put our compost,” she said.

Grand County Council and SWSSD board member Mary McGann agreed. She, Barton and several city council members and community and business leaders worked with Paup and Schmaedick to create a steering committee to explore the creation of a local composting facility.

“We designed it as a pilot project so we can find out what we didn’t think through, figure out if it’ll work where we’re putting it, those sorts of things,” McGann said. “Hopefully, we thought most things through and it will move from a pilot to a full-blown compost facility for the community. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Moab City Council and SWSSD board member Kalen Jones, who helped with the final design, said that though the committee finished its design this spring, the state’s permitting process delayed execution. Collection of compostables won’t begin until more ideal conditions for starting the processing return in early 2017.

According to Barton, residents will be able to compost chipped tree limbs and branches, unbagged leaves, grass clippings and garden vegetative waste. Unbagged food waste from special events will also be accepted, and the district may expand collection of that waste for a limited number of food preparation retail operations that are willing to separate their materials.

Given the low humidity and rainfall in Moab, it’s unknown how much water will be required in the composting system the committee agreed on, Jones said. In contrast to an in-vestibule industrial system, which processes compost with machinery in an enclosed space, the pilot project will be a “wind-row system,” which leaves compost piles exposed to open air to be mixed mechanically, in this case with a multipurpose bucket loader.

In general, the group wants community stakeholders to become familiar with the actual logistics of industrial-scale composting before committing funds to purchase new equipment and build a permanent facility, Jones said. Plastic bags are a problem at the Klondike Landfill, for example, and compostable food containers could present a similar challenge.

“We just need to see how well we can manage composting with our specific situation here, especially with rain, sun and lack of rain,” he said.

According to the draft plan submitted to the Utah DEQ, field testing procedures will include documenting daily temperatures of composting windrows, testing moisture content multiple times per week, and sending samples of cured material to a U.S. Compost Council Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) Certified Laboratory.

“Presuming we do want to go forward, there will be more investment in the site in terms of equipment we have to purchase,” said Jones. “As we’re working on the 2018 budget in the fall, we can plan for that.”

The Moab Folk Festival’s move to diminish its impact is the kind of step that the district hopes to see as efforts to minimize the costs and carbon footprint of Moab’s waste stream management begin next year, Barton said.

The community is going to have to become creative with waste disposal as mineral lease revenues – which have historically subsidized the recycling center – diminish, McGann said. The Community Recycling Center has not broken even in the six years it has run on public funds.

“It’s just mandatory,” she said. “… We’re going to have to look much closer at how we’re going to make our recycle program feasible. We’re all supportive of recycling, but there’s a point where you start to question the carbon print of trucking this stuff everywhere.”

In winter months, the city’s per capita waste production is on par with the rest of the nation’s, at around 4.5 pounds per day, Barton said. During high tourism season, that number soars to almost 14 pounds per day, calculated for the same number of permanent residents. It is more waste than the system is designed to process.

“If the landfills do subsidize [recycling] to the point that we need things in the landfills, we’re working against ourselves,” Barton said. “And that’s where many rural communities are now, getting shot in the foot to where programs are shutting down, to where we’re wondering: Can we even do this in our community of 5,000 people? A million people come here and have no problem throwing things away that would never end up in the trash at home.”

The SWSSD will hold a public meeting in early December to discuss its financial situation with community members and business owners, and to solicit ideas for decreasing Moab’s overall waste production and for increasing the recycling center’s viability.

For example, as the Community Recycling Center stops shipping glass out of the area, tons of crushed glass will form a drainage layer below the pad being constructed for the compost piles. Barton was also able to repurpose several 240-gallon water totes to hold water at the composting site instead of being buried in the landfill. She hasn’t figured out how the water will be pumped to the holding vessels, but is certain that problem will be solved.

“We’re hoping to get a lot of ideas,” McGann said. “We’re hoping people will show up, that we can get ideas, and also educate the community so everyone understands what we’re dealing with.”

Solid waste district officials say proposed facility a step toward solving waste stream woes