Bear-Proof Trashcans: Ignoring the Real Issues in Boulder, Colorado’s Food System


In recent decades, many changes have happened in our world, such as rapid economic growth, population growth, and technologies allowing food to be mass-produced. These advancements drastically altered our society, with most people moving into urban areas; massive, industrial farms covering a substantial amount of land; and ridiculous amounts of food waste: about a third of food produced for human consumption is wasted. While food waste is a global issue, there is a reason that you need to care about it as a resident of Boulder, Colorado, that is the impact food waste has on our black bear population. Many animals in Boulder have become reliant on food waste in dumpsters to survive. Wild bears are becoming less scared of humans due to them now residing in these residential areas with high amounts of food waste, which puts both humans and animals in danger. It is important for the health and safety of all in our ecosystem to prevent wildlife from becoming reliant on food waste due to the negative consequences on our ecosystem. However, the way that the city of Boulder has gone about their attempt to reduce the rates at which wildlife become  reliant on food waste has proven to be unsustainable, and places the blame on the wildlife instead of addressing the real issue: residential food waste. By reducing food waste, bears will learn that even if the bear-proofed dumpsters are not closed properly, the risks of venturing into Boulder far outweigh the benefits of finding a small amount of food waste. If we really want to protect the bears of Boulder, we must hold the residents of Boulder accountable for their actions that endanger bears. 
bear-in-trashHungry bear looks for food in a garbage can

Bear-Proofing Boulder

After a series of bear attacks resulting in harm to both humans and bears in 2013, the city of Boulder determined that trash was the main attractant of bears. Following that, the city began implementing bear-resistant trash and compost containers, and in 2017, Bear Protection Ordinance 8161 was passed to “eliminate access to food rewards found in trash and compost bins.” In the simplified summary of the order, citizens are urged to use bear-resistant containers even when not required, harvest ripe fruits and vegetables from their garden, secure livestock such as chickens on their property to prevent bear attacks, and only feed birds during winter months when the bears are hibernating. However, nowhere in the order or in the recommendation to the public does it specifically call for a reduction in residential food waste, which has been shown to greatly reduce bear activity in residential areas. By reducing our food waste, bears will be less incentivized to come to downtown Boulder looking for food, and hardly ever venture into residential communities. The City of Boulder cares greatly about the safety of the bears and our wildlife so, why do they fail to address food waste in their bear ordinance? Preventing food waste is key for protecting the community, and it is proven to work: for each 1% of the population that is knowledgeable about waste management and bear deterrence methods, there is a 5% decrease in the chance that a bear becomes a “conflict bear,” which is a bear that is conditioned to act on its learned behaviors even when it directly poses a threat to humans and itself. It’s clear that by informing the public over their influence over the behavior of bears and simple lifestyle changes, the ecological community of Boulder will strongly benefit – it is clear that to act in the best interests of the wildlife and the community, the city of Boulder must move quickly to address are ever worsening food waste crisis.

What Can We Expect if Food Waste Decreases? 

In Boulder, approximately 40% of all food produced eventually is wasted, a majority of which comes from residential homes. The amount of food waste produced by humans is only expected to increase throughout the coming years, as populations become larger and more affluent. As we know, food waste encourages bears to enter residential areas seeking food; due to this could the city of Boulder eventually become pooling with wildlife and experience even more bear encounters and attacks, as a result of unchecked increases in food waste? While this scenario is unlikely, we must address food waste quickly in order to stop a population boom from bears that are already accustomed to living in close proximity to humans. Just a few hundred miles away in Durango, a natural food shortage in the city showed a quick change in the local bear population: the bears that frequently visited neighborhoods to retrieve food from dumpsters were the ones who perished, and the bears who still were afraid of humans and stayed far away from civilization were the ones who survived. Even now, years after the food shortage ended, bears in downtown Durango are extremely rare due to their learned behaviors to avoid town. This is indicative of food waste raising the carrying capacity of bear populations, which dramatically alters the function of the ecosystem. By drastically reducing food waste, we can mimic a similar scenario to the food shortage in Durango, and Boulder could expect to see a decrease in conflict bears, returning the carrying capacity of bears in Boulder back to equilibrium. 

What Can We Expect if Food Waste Doesn’t Decrease? 

Yellowstone National Park faced consequences from the abundance of conflict bears throughout the park due to failure to consistently collect trash from the dumpsters in park boundaries. Black and grizzly bears in the park became reliant on food from the dumpsters, posing a threat to tourists as the bears were not afraid of human interaction. Instead of prohibiting the dumping of food waste in the park, Yellowstone dedicated many resources to installing bear proof trashcans and collecting trash more frequently. This resulted in a decrease in conflict bear populations. This shouldn’t come as a surprise however, as these results are similar to Boulder’s after implementing Bear Protection Ordinance 8161. However, in both Yellowstone and Boulder, there remains a small population of conflict bears. Since the implementation of Bear Protection Ordinance 8161, bears are still common sights in Boulder neighborhoods, and an unfortunate number of bears have had to have died due to their lack of fear around humans. Without reducing food waste, bears are still incentivized to venture into Boulder to obtain food. Conflict bears have been a problem in communities in Alaska, Montana, Tennessee, and all of these communities had issues with proper disposal of food waste. Once food waste disposal was properly addressed in these communities, the amount of conflict bears decreased. in order to fully prevent bears from becoming conflict bears that pose a risk to Boulder residents, we must fully address the root problem. Bear-proof trash cans are not the solution to conflict bears. 


Whether you think the bear that digs through your dumpster is cute or a nuisance, you should be mindful of your food waste for the sake of the ecological community. Bears in Boulder are putting their lives at risk because of the high incentive to become reliant on dumpster diving for their diets, which has devastating consequences for the bear community. Despite the City of Boulder’s failure to advocate and encourage reducing your food waste to protect the bears of Boulder, minimizing food waste will make a substantial impact on the future of human-bear relationships, and has the potential to save many lives – both bear and human. Multiple communities across North America have seen great success in minimizing conflict bears from properly addressing food waste. The path we must take in order to truly protect our community from the dangers surrounding bear interactions is clear, yet many do not even realize the importance of reducing food waste to protect wildlife due to Boulder’s failure to properly frame the problem. 

Are garbage can raids shortening bears' lives? | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Generations of Black Bears Raiding a Dumpster


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8 responses to “Bear-Proof Trashcans: Ignoring the Real Issues in Boulder, Colorado’s Food System

  1. karasbrock

    Awesome post! I found this topic to be super interesting and one I had never considered to be linked to food waste. I was wondering, what do you think is the best way to go about educating the public on this issue? Great job!


    • laurenkampling

      Thank you! I think the best approach for education is a combination of action from the City of Boulder simply stating that food waste is the reason so many bears dig through trash, and informational posters in grocery stores explaining why you should and how you can reduce food waste.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. haileyrobe

    This is really interesting! I have never heard anyone discuss bear awareness from this perspective – you did a really great job of finding a unique topic. I love black bears so I am really glad you brought up ways to reduce negative interactions between bears and humans. I agree with you that informational posters and a statement from the city would help, and I would also add that lots of nature centers host public programs, which might be a great opportunity for a bear awareness class! I got the opportunity to lead one of these classes at a nature center in Colorado Springs, and I think something similar would be really helpful for Boulder as well. You post is really well-written and I enjoyed reading it!


    • laurenkampling

      Thanks, Hailey! That does seem like a great idea, I think the more people aware of bears the better. I would love to look into a class like that in Boulder! 🙂


  3. kamc5080

    This is a huge issue! I live on the Hill and see so many bears and other animals digging through trashcans. I think the hardest part about bear-proofing trashcans, especially in Boulder, is that a lot of people here just don’t care enough to make sure the latches close correctly or that the bins aren’t overflowed.


    • laurenkampling

      I was actually inspired to write my blog post on this because a bear broke into my boyfriend’s house because his window right next to the kitchen garbage can was cracked open! I think the bear became so comfortable by their house because their neighbors would just leave their trash outside their door instead of bringing it to the dumpster… I had to call animal control for the bear and I’m afraid they had to euthanize it. I was really upset that the negligence of humans led to the death of a bear. Sorry for rambling, but I’m glad you liked my post and I hope it can inspire someone to properly dispose of their trash (and reduce their food waste!)


  4. ericckrieg

    I really liked how you connected two seemingly unrelated things, and I didn’t know bear-human interactions were such an issue. Lots of the time, change first occurs at the consumer level, so I think limiting consumer food waste is where any efforts should be focused. Do you think there should be some type of extra fee that someone has to pay if their trash waste for the week is over a specific amount?


    • laurenkampling

      Hi Eric! I think that’s a good idea, I haven’t really thought about it much but I think anything that would make people consider their consumption habits and the amount of waste they produce will be good!


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