HELENA — A new composting company is locked in a dispute with the city of Helena, as city leaders argue the company’s curbside collections violate city code.
In March, Better Roots Composting, a subsidiary of Tri-County Disposal, began collecting food and yard waste from residential customers across the Helena Valley.
“We’re trying to divert waste; we’re trying to not be wasteful,” said manager Chance Sparrow. “The county landfill, Valley View Landfill, there’s only so much life. Honestly, collecting compost is more environmentally friendly than just burying it – it’s going to cost the same to collect it; why don’t we put the material on a compost facility and provide compost, topsoil amendment back to our local community.”
Each customer receives a 64-gallon collection bin. Sparrow collects the material every other week, then brings it back to a compost pile at the Valley View Landfill.
The pile is still fairly small. Sparrow estimates it at about 12 to 16 cubic yards of material. Better Roots currently has about 40 customers, including about 15 within the Helena city limits.
Those 15 customers are the sticking point with the city of Helena. Leaders say city staff noticed the Better Roots bins on the street and began investigating.
Leaders point to an ordinance from 1988 that made the city the “sole provider of garbage and solid waste disposal services” for residential customers. They say, by going to pick up compost from city residents, Better Roots is violating the provision saying “all private collection and operation of residential garbage and solid waste disposal services shall cease and terminate.”
Last week, the city met with Better Roots and asked them to stop their collections within the city limits. Sparrow said he refused, arguing that, since they planned to recycle the material and eventually offer compost for sale, their operation shouldn’t fall under “waste disposal.”
““The definition of disposal services is being landfilled or taken to a facility where it gets put in the ground,” he said. “We’re not doing that.”
The city didn’t accept that argument, saying any curbside waste collection ran afoul of the code.
“The service of picking up waste, whether it’s composting, recycling, solid waste – we believe falls under the interpretation of the city ordinance, which very clearly states that any residential pickup needs to fall through the city,” said public information officer Jake Garcin.
Garcin said the city attorney’s office plans to send Better Roots a cease-and-desist letter, possibly as soon as Friday.
Sparrow said it didn’t make sense for the city to block their service when they haven’t chosen to provide curbside composting themselves. Residents can take material to the transfer station to be composted, but there’s no option for pickup yet.
“Essentially, it’s private business seeing a need within the community and providing the service,” he said.
Garcin said the city has already been having discussions about expanding into compost collections.
“There have been plans to evaluate it in the coming year, and this conservation has expedited that,” he said. “The city commission strongly requested last week that staff look for a solution for offering composting as soon as possible, and so our public works department is working at the moment, trying to identify what’s the best way forward for offering composting and then putting that into motion.”
The city could choose to offer the service itself or make a contract with a private company. Garcin said, if they do contract the services, it will have to go through a full formal bid process. One company, Helena Recycling, currently does make curbside pickups based on that type of contract with the city.
Sparrow said he believes several other companies are picking up residential waste without a contract. Garcin said the city will be investigating that, and could send additional cease-and-desist letters.