HELENA — Last summer, two private composting companies found themselves locked in a dispute with the city of Helena. City leaders argued the companies’ curbside collections violated city code. Now, though, that dispute has been resolved – at least for the next nearly two years.
Better Roots Composting and 406 Compost have each signed temporary contracts with the city that will allow them to continue their curbside compost operations within city limits until at least November 2023.
“It’s more exciting than anything, just because we can actually divert waste from the city of Helena – not because we want to take any tonnage away from the city, but because it’s the right thing to do,” said Better Roots manager Chance Sparrow.
Last summer, Helena leaders began investigating after noticing Better Roots collection bins on the street. They eventually told Better Roots and 406 that they couldn’t continue picking up from residential customers within the city, saying city code prohibited private garbage or solid waste collection.
While the city initially looked at sending cease-and-desist leaders, the Helena City Commission instead said they wanted a solution that would let the companies keep operating for the time being. 406 signed a contract with the city in November. Better Roots signed in January.
Under the agreements, the city will neither pay the companies nor require payment from them. However, Better Roots and 406 will have to keep the city informed of their collection routes and equipment, as well as providing them with numbers on how many customers they have and how much waste they’ve diverted.
“We’re very pleased with the contracts with the city,” said Matt Elsaesser of 406 Compost. “It clarifies our ability to operate, and it allows to continue to provide our bucket collection and our parallel yard waste program.”
Better Roots has given residential customers 64-gallon collection bins, used a large truck to pick the material up and brought it back to a compost pile at the Valley View Landfill. 406 Compost has focused primarily on handling food waste and containers, providing customers plastic buckets and picking them up to undergo composting with worms at a facility in Belgrade.
Both companies say they’ve seen their customer numbers within the city double since the summer. Now, with the dispute with the city resolved, they’re looking at ways to move their businesses forward.
Sparrow says Better Roots plans to switch to a smaller truck, to make it easier to check bins for plastic and other material that shouldn’t be composted.
“I think that’s one of the biggest issues in the industry, plastics or glass or any other garbage going into compost,” he said. “We’re trying to do that curbside and inform our customer base, just helping create a more educated community on composting and what is compostable.”
406 has set up a bucket exchange site at Good Samaritan Thrift Store, where customers can drop off a full load of compost material and pick up a new bucket. Elsaesser says they’re planning to put another exchange at the Real Food Store.
“This is really for folks out of town,” he said. “One of our first customers lives in Colorado Gulch, and for her household it’s nice to get all the organics out of their trash – not only to be green with the compost and worm angle, but also making the trash less appealing for wildlife.”
As the city reached its agreements with the two composting companies, it also started planning for a new strategic plan for waste reduction. Helena has set a goal of diverting half of waste from the landfill by 2040. You can find more information about that planning process here.
Sparrow and Elsaesser say they hope they’ll be able to continue their relationship with the city beyond the temporary contracts they’ve signed.
“I feel it’s a reasonable timeline to give us certainty,” Elsaesser said. “Of course, we hope to continue the program for the foreseeable future.”
“Hopefully at the end of the agreement, Helena decides to work with us and 406 and just continue the relationship moving forward,” said Sparrow. “I think it’s a great public-private partnership.”