Are Boulder Food Businesses Meeting Zero Waste Goals?

After a COVID-related break, Boulder has reinstated a requirement that food businesses report what they’re doing to comply with the city’s Zero Waste ordinance. Restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops and almost all other businesses involved with food are supposed to be doing their part to reduce waste.  As part of our “Follow the Waste” Zero series, Sam Fuqua reports on how some businesses are responding.


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    Are Boulder Food Businesses Meeting Zero Waste Goals? Shannon Young

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Visitors to  Boulder’s Pearl Street pedestrian mall can find a trio of trash cans through the length of the walkway; one for compost, another for recyclables and the last for landfill waste. It’s part of a city effort to minimize waste under what’s called the Universal Zero Waste Ordinance.  Passed by city council back in 2015, it has three parts:  All property owners—residential and commercial—are required to subscribe to separate collection services for trash, recyclables and compost. Another part of the ordinance sets zero waste rules for special events.  And finally the ordinance sets a number of requirements for any business that deals with food. There are close to 400 of those in the city.

Sandy Briggs,a sustainability program manager for the city, oversees the business compliance with the ordinance. Briggs says businesses are also required to check in with the city every year via an online report.

“Businesses are required to complete a zero waste reporting form, which can be easily found on the universal zero ordinance website and other places“ she said. “The report asks them to demonstrate through photos their compliant collection systems within their businesses that we can look at and asks a few other general questions about who their waste hauler is and whether they believe that service is adequate, that they’re receiving.”

At Ozo Coffee on East Arapahoe the required bins are just inside the entrance. Ty Harrell, one of the managers for the local company, says the landfill bin is “sometimes a catchall” because customers aren’t sure which waste goes in which bin.

And while the zero waste compliance and reporting rules are just two of many requirements businesses have to deal with, he says it’s part of being serious about sustainability as a company.

“It can get hairy. I know, like every month with the amount of things that businesses have to keep track of and, and stay on top of, submitting things like that can be tough.” Harrell said. “Thankfully though, for us, we have a great team of people and, and being that it’s kind of our culture as a company is to always be maintaining our sustainability goals, we do a pretty good job.”

But not all businesses are staying on top of it. Sandy Briggs from the city says that 138 restaurants and groceries stores submitted their zero waste compliance form by the August 31st reporting  deadline. That’s a little more than one-third of the 384 food businesses in town. Briggs says there won’t be any penalties right away for businesses that didn’t file on time.

“There will be lots of reminders and there’s lots of help and advising. We much prefer to not enforce this and to actually just help people through consulting and advising to, to get it right,” Briggs said.

But the zero waste ordinance does say that businesses may receive fines for noncompliance. That would be a last resort. The city partners with Boulder County’s PACE program to help businesses move toward zero waste. PACE stands for Partners for A Clean Environment. The zero waste ordinance section on the city’s website includes a handbook for businesses and training videos for employees in English and in Spanish.  Businesses can also get free signs and compost bags.

To make things a little easier–and reduce the amount of contaminated compost– the city recently dropped the requirement that food businesses have a compost bin for their customers. They must still collect compost from their kitchens and behind the counters, but they only need to put two bins out front for customers: a recycle bin and a landfill bin.

The two largest grocery store chains in Boulder—Safeway and King Soopers—did not respond to  interview requests for this story.

But at one of the smallest food markets in town, the focus is on creating less waste upfront so there’s less that needs to be recycled or composted. From a storefront on East Walnut, Nude Foods offers groceries and prepared food with almost no packaging.

“It’s much better to reuse things than to recycle them and use all the energy to break things down and then create another product that’s usually of inferior quality,” said Nude Foods co-founder Rachel Irons

Any product sold at Nude Foods that needs a container is in a glass jar. Or customers can bring their own receptacle. In addition to reducing waste, Irons says that approach can head off consumer confusion around what types of packaging can be recycled or composted.

“There’s a lot of ‘wish cycling’ as they call it, which is people don’t want to feel guilty about throwing things away,” she said. “So even if they’re not sure if it can be recycled or composted, they’re like, oh, I’ll just throw it in there and someone will figure it out, down the line. But they won’t. You’re just making more problems and it’s better to just put it in the trash if you don’t know where it’s going.”

Boulder’s Zero Waste Strategic Plan sets a target of 85% waste diversion by 2025. Many neighboring cities have also set zero waste goals.

Ft. Collins’ is a bit more ambitious than Boulder’s, while Denver is aiming lower with a goal of a 70% diversion by 2032.  Boulder’s current waste diversion is at 53%—a long way to go to get the   85% goal in three years.



This reporting series was made possible by a grant from Boulder County’s Zero Waste Funding Program.

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