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Being waste-wise at big events like MeadowGrass requires an equally grand community effort 

MeadowGrass really wants to be a zero-waste event. But it's only achieving "waste-wise" status this year, says co-organizer Nicole Nicoletta.

Nicoletta, a Pikes Peak Community College sociology teacher, Manitou Springs City Council member and Pikes Peak Permaculture and Transition Town Manitou member, says the music event's waste company, Tri-Lakes Disposal, only offers recycling and trash service, no commercial composting. That means any composting done on-site will have to be of the backyard variety, with her volunteer staff separating by-hand vegetable and fruit scraps and the like, for eventual delivery to Manitou's Flying Pig Farm.

More heavy-duty items that commercial composting sites could handle, such as meat scraps, paper plates and compostable cutlery, bowls and cups, will have to go into the trash. The only consolation organizers have found has come in mandating that vendors use eco-friendly products (no foam!) so there's at least a do-good on the front end — supporting post-consumer and plant-based products that eschew virgin materials and fossil-fuel ingredients. (Disclosure: Indy editorial art director Tanya Shaw Jeffrey is a member of the MeadowGrass steering committee.)

"What does it mean to be mindful at an event where there's an insane amount of disposable products?" she asks, adding that it may be time to start that conversation at the local government level, and even to considering regulations.

A larger question for this area: Why is it apparently so difficult to host a zero-waste shindig around here?

"The cost for dropping off compost at a facility is about double what it is for garbage," says Bestway Disposal owner Tom Kiemel. As he explains it, garbage only gets one touch — a dirt covering. But compost must be turned and watered because of our arid climate. It's labor-intensive.

So although Bestway has the resources to tackle MeadowGrass, having made a mark at Manitou's Commonwheel Arts and Crafts Festival and selected events prior, Kiemel declined the job; he says special events can be prohibitively expensive. Staffing and extra routes aside, he has to pay Waste Management on the back end to accept compostables at its Midway Landfill in Fountain.

One of his drivers already makes that trip for his 100-plus weekly compost customers, which include Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and green-minded eateries like Poor Richard's and Rasta Pasta.

Rebecca Taraborelli, Rasta Pasta co-owner, says she actually saves money through composting, adding, "I can't believe all restaurants aren't doing it." She notes that Bestway initially sent an employee out daily to train her staff on best sorting practices. Now they only throw away a single small residential-sized trash bag daily, and her savings come from fewer trash truck visits and fuel surcharges.

Taraborelli already uses eco-friendly to-go ware at Rasta Pasta, and has installed a 5 percent to-go charge to cover the higher costs for it. When she sets up shop at events, she has to build 10 percent more into her prices, since customers (not always her own) often will grab multiple forks and napkins.

As it happens, Rasta Pasta will be among the vendors at MeadowGrass. Like Nicoletta, Taraborelli preemptively laments having to toss her sugarcane-based bowls and starch-based forks into the garbage, instead of a commercial compost bin. She'd love to see a zero-waste setting. "Colorado Springs," she says, "is very behind."

We're all tired of hearing how Boulder does all green things better, but it's still true.

Eco-Cycle is a nonprofit social enterprise that operates almost exclusively inside Boulder County. The group manages the Boulder County Recycling Center, runs a regular compost pickup service, and organizes green disposal at roughly 50 events a year, achieving an 80 to 95 percent diversion rate away from the landfill.

Events manager David Fridland says Eco-Cycle rents DIY kits — $12 per set of three wire bins for trash, recycling and compost — for small events, but scales up to handle 10,000-person events like the Lafayette Peach Festival. He says running a zero-waste event "is really not that hard."

His staff engages vendors early to educate them and assist with product purchasing. They design station placement and signage and ensure the experience for guests is as effortless as possible — that "recycling and composting are the easiest option at an event."

He insists volunteers at stations are critical not only to protect against contamination in each bin, but also to further education of the event-going public.

"Composting is one of the easiest things we can do to make a difference with climate change," he says. "It's not just to keep items out of landfills." He points out that recycling takes less water and energy than manufacturing virgin materials, and that compostable items in landfills release methane, a destructive greenhouse gas, as they break down.

Eco-Cycle's compost heads northeast of Boulder to the tiny town of Keenesburg for processing and re-sale to places like nurseries, creating a closed loop inside a slice of Colorado — the environmental ideal.

"When working toward zero waste," he says, "we have to go into every segment of society: businesses, schools, homes, government and events. ... We like to have a lot of events, we just have to do them in a responsible way."

Dave Reindel agrees. He worked at Eco-Cycle for eight years before moving west into the affluent Roaring Fork Valley and opening EverGreen Events. Despite the name, EverGreen's main revenue stream comes from regular residential and commercial compost collection. The Pitkin County Landfill is his one-stop shop for trash, recycling and compost needs.

Landfill manager Cathy Hall says that in 2014, her business' bulk sales of composted soils (post-treatment, not including the initial dump fee) to landscapers and folks like the Forest Service hit $455,922, representing a significant revenue stream for the business. Those soils sell out seasonally.

EverGreen essentially provides the same event service as Eco-Cycle, and Reindel says that aiming for zero waste "displays an event's values."

"These old mountain-town events are being shunned," he says, "if they don't join the culture. People go rafting instead of stick around for Potato Days or whatever."

But the cooler thing about EverGreen is that the business travels. It helps out at race series like the X Games, but also treks to events as far away as Texas, establishing networks and coordinating with waste outlets in the area.

Which means that if Nicoletta had learned of EverGreen prior to this reporting, the company likely could have met MeadowGrass' desires, probably sending commercial compost to Waste Management's Fountain facility. (WM, too, in theory could handle MeadowGrass, but it rarely does events and doesn't offer area compost pickup as Bestway does.) Reindel ballparks about $1,000 a day to cover everything, some of which could be paid for with money not spent on another trash provider, and by sponsorship.

MeadowGrass director Steve Harris, who saw about 4,000 people attend the event last year, says that "sounds possibly doable" for 2016. "We're learning as we go," he says. "We'd love to do more to green it."

Hey, it takes a village. Or at least village infrastructure and willingness.

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