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Helena commission debates path forward for residential compost collection

Compost Pile
Posted at 11:45 AM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 21:15:18-04

HELENA — Helena city commissioners say they want to allow a pair of private businesses to continue small-scale residential collection of waste for composting, at least in the short term. However, they still have questions about the best way to handle curbside composting going forward.

The commission held a discussion on the issue Wednesday at an administrative meeting. It came several weeks after the city got involved in a dispute with Better Roots Composting. City staff says that company – along with a second operator, 406 Compost – are in violation of an ordinance that makes the city the “sole provider of garbage and solid waste disposal services” for residential customers.

“The question becomes, is it important for the city to maintain that residential curbside collection, or is it more important to maintain the diversity of options?” said city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk.

Better Roots and 406 both operate outside Helena city limits, but have begun picking up waste from a few residential customers within the city. Currently, they’re serving several dozen city residents.

The city has looked at sending cease-and-desist letters, asking the companies to stop curbside collections in the city. However, they delayed sending the letters to give more time for considering next steps.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Harlow-Schalk provided the commission with a number of possible options, from changing city code to allow private companies to collect compost waste, to offering a city contract for a company to handle curbside collection, to having the city take over curbside collection themselves.

Commissioners agreed they didn’t want to block the businesses from operating for now, but they had different ideas on the best long-term response.

Commissioner Sean Logan favored immediately changing the city code to allow private businesses to collect residential waste, since the companies were simply providing a service the city hadn’t chosen to offer.

“I see this as a pretty simple transaction between a small business and customers who have a need,” he said. “That transaction has been happening, and people seem very happy with the service.”

Commissioner Emily Dean supported exempting waste for composting from the city ordinance, saying it was helping the city move toward its goal of diverting more waste out of the landfill. However, she also wanted to look at other options in the future, particularly after the city completes an upcoming study on how to manage its waste.

“I think if we want to reconsider what might be better routes in the future, especially as these studies come out, but I think we have to deal with the here and now immediately,” she said.

Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin said she understood and supported the goal of allowing these businesses to continue operating for now, so that customers wouldn’t lose access to composting services. She said, in the longer term, she would favor having companies contract for the service through the city – giving the city more input on things like how the compost is used and how many businesses provide curbside service.

“If we go the route of just a full-on change to the ordinance, I think we lose some of that control from a policy perspective,” said O’Loughlin.

Harlow-Schalk told commissioners her staff would contact Better Roots and 406 and see if they can come up with solutions to allow them to keep operating temporarily – giving the city more time to think about whether they want to make changes to the ordinance, and how they want to handle composting waste in the long term.

Matt Elsaesser runs 406 Compost, which focuses primarily on food waste. Every other week, they collect waste from their customers in plastic buckets, then carry those buckets to YES Compost – a facility in Belgrade that uses worms to process waste.

Elsaesser says he believed his operation wouldn’t run afoul of city code since they collect buckets from clients’ doorsteps by hand, rather than using a collection truck or keeping bins. In addition, most of their operations are outside Lewis and Clark County. He hoped the city would move to amend the code, to specifically allow composting businesses to pick up waste from residential customers.

“We’ve heard a lot of positive support from folks who think this is a great service that complements their ability to reduce their environmental footprint,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of concern that these businesses would be prohibited while that service has not been and is not for the foreseeable future being offered anyways.”

City staff says the issue is less about these two specific businesses and more about the possible impacts if residential collections were opened up. For example, public works director Ryan Leland said that could lead to more companies coming in, with larger trucks that would put more wear on streets. He also said the city composts yard waste together with treated biosolids from the wastewater system, and that if companies divert too much of the green material, they may not be able to process as much.

Leland said the city and Lewis and Clark County will work together on the broader waste study, which could take 18 months to complete. He said that would give them a better idea of how to move forward.

“We’re looking at collection, we’re looking at if we’re going to increase recycling, are we going to do compost collection, is it going to be mandatory recycling, voluntary recycling,” he said. “Everything is on the table.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated with additional quotes.