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A tub grinder chews up some of the estimated 17 acres of accumulated brush at Garden City Compost, the facility formerly known as EKO Compost and now owned by the City of Missoula. The composting operation, sitting adjacent to and now within the city's wastewater division, helps keep green waste out of the landfill and provides the city a use for wastewater biosolids. It's one part of the city's "Zero by Fifty" program, which aims to reduce landfill waste by 90 percent by the year 2050.

Missoula’s Zero by Fifty waste reduction plan won preliminary approval Wednesday from the city council, but not without some reservations over the unknown costs and actual benefits.

The program is meant to cut the waste stream in Missoula by 90 percent by 2050, according to Chase Jones, the city’s energy conservation and climate action director. The plan calls for about 40 different activities the city can undertake within the next 10 years to reduce the amount of waste going into the landfill; those include making it easier to recycle, reusing and repairing products, and limiting the production of waste materials.

Nick Checota, owner of Logjam Presents, encouraged the city to adopt the measure, noting that he’s already undertaken activities at his entertainment venues that have reduced the waste stream. That includes replacing plastic cups with biodegradable ones, working with a Philipsburg brewery to produce cans for water containers instead of plastic bottles, and composting leftover food.

”It cost us about $70,000 a year across all of our venues to implement, but one benefit that’s not discussed is the marketing benefit and perception,” Checota told the council. “For us to be perceived as a green company has a lot of value … and there’s a definite benefit for this community to have that kind of branding associated with it.”

But council member Michelle Cares reluctantly wondered aloud whether approving the plan was merely a feel-good measure that wouldn’t translate into actual waste reductions. She noted that a lot of activities undertaken by both the health and parks department don’t lend themselves to the initiatives, and some of her family members and neighbors are unlikely to recycle, even with incentives.

“Is this merely for good feelings of having a plan that looks nice, and will not be able to succeed?” she asked her fellow council members.

Council member Julie Merritt responded that she sees that plan as a roadmap to help guide the city in making informed decisions.

“It’s like one leg of the stool, and that’s what appeals to me,” Merritt said.

Council member Jordan Hess agreed, adding that the decisions behind their climate change and waste reductions will be difficult and contentious at times, but it’s something they have to undertake.

“And setting the plan is the first step,” he said.

The key, according to council member Jesse Ramos, is to make this a shared partnership across the community.

“The real changes will come from the private sector, but the big thing is establishing the goals in the community,” Ramos said. “We can debate the expenditures another time … but put pressure on the business sector that can make a profit off of what will be recyclables. The city says in the report that this is a main idea, and that’s what I support.”

The plan already is supported by the Home ReSource building materials recycling organization and Climate Smart Missoula.

Even after raising their concerns, the vote to support the program was unanimous, with council members Stacie Anderson and Julie Armstrong absent. The final vote will be part of the council’s consent agenda at its Monday night meeting.

Jones noted that the plan contains some unknowns, including the cost of implementing the various activities to reduce the waste stream. But he assured the council that by approving the plan they’re committing to its goals from which strategies will be created. Once they decide on those implementation strategies, he can attach the costs to the individual activities, which again will be discussed and decided upon by the council.

He readily acknowledged, however, that he’s seeking one full-time person to help implement the plan, and that they’ll need to contract with Home ReSource, too, to move forward.

“I wish I could give you more specifics on the costs; that’s always one of the first questions. But there’s no way to calculate the expected costs in the short term and even into the future,” Jones said. “There’s lots of variables, but we will bring good information to you on everything.

“Today, all the city is committed to is funding my position this week,” he added with a laugh.

The plan outlines 25 activities the city can take within the first three years that including installing Zero Waste stations — basically, recycling bins paired with a garbage can — in public parks and downtown; expanding the materials accepted at Garden City Compost and the drop-off options for recyclables and reusables, and developing education campaigns and city policies that promote Zero Waste.

Another nine activities that can be undertaken in the following three to five years include supporting a more comprehensive food recovery network; working with private waste collectors to implement every-other-week trash collection; and implementing a mandatory retailer take-back for items that are hazardous household wastes or aren’t reusable, recyclable or compostable locally.

Five more are long-term actions that include incorporating reusable and recycled materials into municipal road construction and maintenance projects; providing incentives for recycling debris such as asphalt, bricks, carpet and lumber; and banning landfill disposal of compostable organics and reusable and recyclable materials.

Ellie Costello, executive director of the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, praised the plan, saying it creates an infrastructure to deal with these issues.

“People are trying to reduce their waste stream and want to learn more,” Costello said. “I’m excited to see all the different avenues in this plan that are approaches to how the city can implement'' it.

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