ASPEN - That cardboard container that once held a six-pack of beer? It doesn't get recycled in Pitkin County. Neither does the corrugated cardboard box that came stuffed with a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese or the Styrofoam cooler you smashed on your last desert trip.
Pitkin County is hoping it can do a better job of letting the public know what should and shouldn't be placed at the recycling drop-off sites in Aspen and Basalt, and it has enlisted the police departments in both communities to help enforce the rules against illegal dumping. The focus is on flagrant violations - abandoning a television set at a recycling center, for example - rather than a stray bit of unwanted cardboard. Both sites are monitored by surveillance video cameras.
The stepped-up effort comes in response to a proliferation of inappropriate items deposited at the drop-off centers, some of which have forced the landfill to toss entire loads of recyclables out with the trash. Rotting meat was among the more unpleasant contaminants found in one of the large containers where the public deposits cardboard, paper, bottles and cans at recycling centers in Aspen and Basalt.
It was perhaps 50 pounds of meat, estimated Hilary Burgess, office manager at the landfill.
"It wasn't like somebody threw out a package of hamburger," she said.
When recyclables can't be recycled as a result of contamination, the sales value of the commodity is lost, the efforts of everyone who bothered to put legitimate recyclables into the container are wasted, and the landfill, which will reach its capacity and close at some point, unnecessarily fills up just a bit more quickly, said Brian Pettet, director of public works, the county department that oversees the landfill.
"It's a loser on multiple fronts," he said.
"We haven't had one good load of office paper that wasn't contaminated in six months," Burgess said. "That's our most valuable commodity. That's the one we make the most money on."
According to Burgess, 24 tons of office paper have been thrown away instead of recycled since September. Since the paper accumulates more slowly at the drop-off centers than, say, cans and bottles, the collection containers sit around longer before they're emptied and are more prone to inappropriate dumping that spoils the load, she said.
Employees make the call on whether a load is ruined or salvageable when it arrives at the landfill.
When trucks haul the big containers of cardboard, newspapers and magazines (yes, the latter two can be mixed together) and office paper to the landfill, they dump them out for sorting. Employees pick through the material and remove anything that shouldn't be there before the material is baled and trucked to its next stop on the recycling journey. But if the load dumped on the ground outside the sorting facility is too contaminated, it's scooped back up and treated as garbage.
Comingled plastics, cans and glass are trucked to a regional sorting facility in Eagle County where the various materials are separated and contaminants are plucked out by hand. Burgess fielded a complaint Friday from the Eagle facility about contaminants in a load from Pitkin County.
"We're kicking off a marketing campaign to try to educate the public so they can better understand the task," Pettet said.
The public clearly wants to participate in recycling, judging from the tons of materials people take the time to separate out of their trash, and landfill operators applaud the practice because it saves space in the landfill. The zeal to recycle, however, sometimes leads to the inclusion of items that either simply can't be recycled or aren't recyclable locally.
Most folks recognize recyclable plastic containers by the familiar insignia on the bottom, but many are apparently unclear about cardboard. Only corrugated cardboard - the kind with the waffle layer sandwiched in the middle - is accepted for recycling locally. Exceptions include corrugated pizza boxes, because of the greasy residue they contain, and fruit boxes, which are waxed.
Not accepted for recycling in Pitkin County are the cardboard containers that hold dry foods such as cereal and macaroni, 12-packs of beer and soda or six-packs of bottled beer. The packages that frozen foods come in aren't locally recyclable, either. The landfill instead focuses on higher-volume materials that it can accumulate and ship more quickly, Burgess said.
Go to www.aspenpitkin.com/Departments/Resource-Recovery/Recycling for a complete list of accepted recyclables and other landfill information.
Along with the usual household recyclables, the landfill collects restaurant food waste, grass, brush, lumber, rocks and dirt, all of which are turned into products that can be resold. The effort allows the landfill to create topsoil, compost, potting soil and wood chips, plus rocks and boulders separated into various sizes that are available for sale.
More than 70 percent of the waste that comes into the landfill is diverted through the recycling efforts, lengthening the life of the landfill, according to Pettet. The expectation is that, once it's full and no longer in use, the cost of local trash collection will go up because garbage will be hauled a greater distance for disposal.
In the meantime, Pitkin County residents who want to dispose of television sets or old couches needn't dump them illegally at a recycling center. Each county household is entitled to a $100 credit at the landfill; it can be used to get rid of things such as furniture, broken television sets and computers, refrigerators, motor oil, paint and other nonrecyclable items. When delivering these items, customers must present two forms of county ID (driver's license, car registration or property tax bill).