Routt County, located in the Yampa Valley region of Colorado, is home to 25,000 residents who wake up every morning to mountains and pastures.
While members of the Steamboat Springs community are surrounded by an area rich with resources and agriculture, composting and organics services have not thrived, disrupting waste diversion efforts.
Winn Bowman, founder of Cowgirl Compost CO, saw an opportunity to revamp composting just a year after the city ended its program in 2018.
“We lost it. We had that infrastructure in our area of expertise to support composting,” she explained at the 2022 Recycling Summit. “We had this great infrastructure where people were sorting. We hired people at this ski resort to dig through the materials and then it disappeared. It was heartbreaking as a community to see composting disappear.”
Leveraging his background in landfill consulting and waste diversion, Bowman founded Cowgirl Compost CO, starting with transportation and collection.
The company provides a sealed bucket that is leak-proof and odor-proof for home collection of food waste, which is emptied into “ambassador bins” weekly. Bins are taken to Cowgirl Compost facilities to be composted along with yard waste, creating a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can be used for landscaping and gardening. Subscribers receive a fraction after nine months of enrollment in the program.
Bowman started with a truck, creating two-hour community drop-off events every Wednesday. Recognizing that this was a short-term solution, it brought together “composting ambassadors” to drive its growth strategy.
“We started using people ready to house a 48-gallon toter with the bear-proof top,” she explained. “We tried to get one in every geographic type of neighborhood in the community, which we managed to do. And they took it out every Tuesday and Thursday and they emptied their buckets into the barrel.”
Bowman began picking up trash on Friday, shoveling the contents out of the back of her truck with the help of her husband and son and driving it to the Cowgirl Compost facility, located about 20 miles east. exterior of Steamboat Springs.
“I take food waste, compostable paper, and then mix it with wood chips that tree services bring me for free,” she added.
While small-quantity facilities are exempt from Colorado state regulations, Bowman had to appear before county commissioners and meet permit requirements that far exceeded the state level. One thing that made the Cowgirl Compost CO facility favorable to county officials was the use of a fence to block the view of the compost pile. Recent funding in the form of a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will support future growth, which the state’s composting startups desperately need.
“I do this evenings and weekends because I have another full-time job,” she explained.
Going forward, Bowman is looking to move from a conditionally small-quantity-free composting facility to a Class III operation. She explained her plans to potentially have two locations or multiple locations, but that would require moving equipment. Despite the setbacks and frustration that come with both the business and her role as Director of Waste Diversion at the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, Cowgirl Compost CO’s growth has been a rewarding one.
“Trying to move the needle on recycling and composting and all of that stuff can be really difficult and frustrating at times,” she concluded. “Even though I was exhausted from having a full-time job all day, the nights and weekends I’ve been at this composting facility have been my saving grace and my sanity – that practical part of being able to move the needle and knowing that you’re actually doing something has really been a big part of my life for the past two years.”
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series that explores how three composting businesses operate in Colorado. In Part 1, Jamie Blanchard-Poling discusses how beneficial 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. In Part 3, readers are taken to the high country of Salida with Julie Mach of Elements Mountain Composting.