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A composting plant that diverted thousands of tons of trash in Yellowstone National Park away from a landfill every year is shutting down.

The West Yellowstone and Hebgen Basin Solid Waste Board in October decided to close the plant because running it had become too inefficient and expensive, according to John Burns, manager of the town’s compost facility and transfer station.

Operations at the West Yellowstone Compost Facility will cease Monday, but the town’s transfer station won’t be affected, according to a Gallatin County news release. The solid waste board intends to continue to provide the park with efficient solid waste disposal services, the release says.

In a letter addressed to Yellowstone’s Chief of Facility Maintenance Duane Bubac, Solid Waste Board Chairman Doug Edgerton wrote that the compost facility was built with the best intentions.

“Great effort and expense has been invested in sustaining the program over the last 18 years and there were certainly some successes during that time,” the letter says. “However, more recently, the negative aspects of the program have far outweighed the positives.”

Burns said in an interview that the board is closing the plant because the composting program wasn’t cost effective, and even with rate increases, expenses were outweighing revenue. The board would be open to considering new ideas, he said.

“Yellowstone National Park has been a major contributor to this program, and they have definitely been instrumental in its success,” he said. “We want to continue to work with them with any other options in the future.”

Yellowstone National Park staff did not return requests for an interview or comment before deadline.

The idea of building a composting plant developed in the 1990s, when Yellowstone was sending its trash to Livingston to be incinerated, Burns said. Staff there wanted to find a better way to dispose of the park’s trash.

National Park Service officials worked with West Yellowstone’s solid waste board and others to develop a composting program, and the industrial-grade composting plant opened in the gateway town in 2003.

Workers there could take in waste from both the park and the Hebgen Basin area, but the board decided the plant should only accept mixed solid waste from the park. That was because of limitations in the machinery, according to Burns.

A key piece of equipment extricated organic material from all the mixed solid waste collected in Yellowstone. Garbage got tipped over onto a composting floor, non-compostable items were sorted out and the rest of the material was sent into the machine.

“That piece of equipment was the limiting factor for how much tonnage the compost facility could accept,” Burns said. “It could only run, at maximum, three tons per hour.”In 2015, the revolving drum became too unsafe to use, and a decision was made not to replace it, according to Burns. Without the machine, the district could only accept the park’s food waste, and that came with its own set of problems.

Chief among them was producing a pure product. Yellowstone’s concessionaires did their best to train employees to separate food waste from other waste, according to Burns, but with thousands working park-wide, it was difficult to prevent contamination.

Workers at the facility had to spend hours extracting contaminants from the food waste, and that still didn’t result in a quality, marketable product, he said. There were still bits of glass and plastic in the compost, which made customers reluctant to buy it.

Before the revolving drum broke down, an average of 2,400 tons of waste per year were trucked in from Yellowstone to be processed into compost in West Yellowstone, according to Burns. Afterward, that number dropped to about 600 tons per year.

“We were still operating a large facility on nearly 75% less tonnage than we previously had, and that’s where the cost issues started coming in,” Burns said.

The composting plant needed about 630 tons of waste per year for costs and revenue to break even. For a while, the tonnage was keeping pace with costs, but that changed after the pandemic spurred shutdowns and restrictions park-wide, Burns said.

In 2020, only about 170 tons of food waste were delivered to the composting plant, and ratepayers started subsidizing some of the financial losses, according to Burns. The amount of food waste delivered to West Yellowstone dropped to about 80 tons in 2021, he said.

Despite skyrocketing visitation to the park, pandemic-related restrictions meant major concessionaires in Yellowstone continued to operate at limited capacity. That resulted in less waste for the plant.

Based on pre-pandemic numbers, Burns estimated that shutting down the composting facility will divert about 630 more tons of garbage to Gallatin County’s landfill in Logan each year. That extra waste is a drop in the bucket for the landfill, which took in about 156,700 tons of garbage in fiscal year 2018, according to its most recent annual report.

Burns said that back in 2003, mixed solid waste composting was cutting-edge, and there were probably about 20 other facilities that did it in the United States.

“Now, there are so many other ways of doing it that are cost-effective and more efficient,” he said. “A lot of those facilities that were doing mixed waste composting when we started have either closed down or gone on to other kinds of composting.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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