Compost Operators Navigating the Organics Business: Part 3 – E

Julie Mach of Elements Mountain Composting moved to Colorado in 2009 fresh out of college and with an open mind to a new career.

She was hired to complete environmental conservation work, primarily on public lands, and quickly learned the gaps in education and lifestyle that lead to waste diversion and recycling behaviors.

Speaking at the 2022 Recycle Colorado Summit, she told attendees, “I had a great friend in town. His parents lived in town and I would go watch football at their house and get a six pack of beer and then I would take my empty beer bottles home with me. Salida [Colo.] had a great recycling program. After a few months I was asked “what are you doing with those beer bottles?” You’re doing an art project, right? I said no, I recycle them. And they had lived in Salida for decades. They were from Texas and had never recycled in their entire lives. And I was just amazed.”

Mah grew up in California, which she attributes to her penchant for recycling and passion for the environment. With a knack for recycling, Mah then taught his friend and his family how to compost.

She continued, “[They said] they loved gardening but knew nothing about composting. So I showed them and made them. A few months later they came back and said they had one grocery bag full of trash every week. And that’s it. They managed to divert so much of their stuff. And this is one household. They were open to this education. But I think it’s such a huge component and a huge opportunity for everyone working in our industry.”

With a focus on creating behavioral change, Mah founded Elements Mountain Compost in 2014. Although growth has been small — Mah still juggles a full-time job while running his business — the impact it’s had on the Salida community has been immeasurable.

The small rural community that 5,500 residents call home is located in the Colorado countryside at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Although Chaffee County has about 20,000 residents, there is no widespread collection of organic produce.

“We don’t have any other composters operating in our area or really within a few hours of Salida — at least none that focus on food waste,” she explained. “There are many possibilities. I think many communities in rural Colorado face this problem when they have no one to handle their composting organic waste. So we’re excited to be able to do that not only in Salida, but potentially in some neighboring communities that we’re working on.”

Determined to fill the service gap, Elements Mountain Compost started a residential food waste disposal program that currently has about 150 customers. The company also serves about 25 residents, grocery stores and commercial composters.

She said her first piece of equipment was a Ford Ranger that Mach would use to pull a trailer, she quickly realized the inefficiencies and upgraded.

“We already have a truck with a lift on it. We use the large toter bins to collect compost at both our retail locations and our residential drop-off locations,” she said. “This truck and this structure was a lifesaver.”

Along with food waste, Elements Mountain Compost also collects yard waste and wood waste and hosts a public leaf drop off each year. Logging services provide the use of sawdust as the main source of carbon.

Mach added that working with waste diversion events has seen a spike in revenue over the past year, which has posed challenges in managing compostables.

“When we have a small system, that balance between compostables and food waste is a little off, just when you bring in that volume from a big event,” she said. “We’re constantly changing our processes to make sure we can handle this kind of influx.”

Since its inception, the company has developed ties to the Colorado cannabis industry. It launched a program in the spring of 2022 that uses aerated static piles (ASPs) for cannabis waste.

“We just started a pilot with one of our local cannabis growers – a large industrial cannabis operation. They collect 150 potted plants a day,” Mach said. “If you can imagine, after they’ve taken out the buds and the valuable part, that’s quite a bit of green waste material they have. This was bagged and went into a trailer that went to the landfill once a week. “

Mah explained that while financial institutions may be hesitant to provide financing for organic-oriented businesses, microcredit options for agribusinesses have helped her secure a trommel and other business needs. However, money is not the only factor. A company must also invest in its workforce.

“We hear a lot about that in rural communities — that our workforce can’t afford to live there,” she said. “It’s a huge component of building a sustainable business and being able to create jobs that keep people in the community or wear your PPE, be safe.”

Finally, she emphasized the importance of enjoying the whole process along the way.

“I’ve been sifting through a lot of compost and breathing in a lot of compost and dust and stuff lately and I come home and my ears and eyes are just full of compost all the time,” she concluded. “We got up, but we also get dirty and have fun. This is such a tough key part of the compost world – you’re dealing with dirt. So, get comfortable with it and enjoy it.”

Editor’s Note: This is the third part of a three-part series examining how three Colorado composting companies. In part one, Jamie Blanchard-Pauling explains how fruitful partnerships can help business owners navigate relationships. In part two, Winn Cowman of Cowgirl Compost takes readers on a trip to Steamboat Springs in the Yampa Valley. Part three takes readers to the high country in Salida with Julie Mach of Elements Mountain Composting.

Leave a Comment