ASPEN - Recycling sounds enticingly simple, but in Pitkin County, knowing what materials to put in the recycling bin at the curb and what to throw away can be confusing. The rules can differ from address to address.
While consumers scratch their heads, the county may wonder whether it should be in the recycling business at all, given the many private contractors handling the reuseable end of the waste stream. In some cases, garbage haulers that also pick up recyclables are going above and beyond what government provides.
Back in 2005, Aspen set a new bar for local recycling when it adopted an ordinance that requires garbage haulers to include the pickup of recyclable materials in the base rate they charge customers. The presumption was that businesses and residents would find curbside or alleyway collection more convenient and be willing to participate, especially since they'd be paying for it as part of their trash bill. The law doesn't require residents to recycle, but customers pay the rate whether they recycle or not.
Some haulers fought the move at the time, but now, seven companies operate within the city limits under the rules, according to Ashley Cantrell, senior environmental-health specialist for the city. The city requires the haulers to provide pickup of newspapers and magazines together, plus co-mingled cans, bottles and plastics for all single-family households. Residents must take office paper and corrugated cardboard to a drop-off center if they want to recycle those materials.
Businesses and multifamily complexes are to be offered pickup of corrugated cardboard (along with brown paper bags) and office paper as well as newspapers/magazines and the co-mingled products.
"We have pretty high standards for what haulers are required to pick up," Cantrell said. "We want to make sure everyone is getting the bare minimum, which is a lot of recyclables."
Some haulers go beyond the minimum, though, picking up cardboard from all their customers, for example, and accepting more than the corrugated cardboard mandated by the city.
In fact, some have moved to what's called single-stream recycling, which allows the customer to put everything - all types of cardboard, papers, magazines and containers - into one bin. Haulers take the material to an automated sorting facility, where the products are separated. Those loads bypass the local landfill, though, which doesn't accommodate single-stream collection and only accepts corrugated cardboard, largely because of space issues. The landfill handles separate loads of corrugated cardboard (not the paperboard used to package cereal, six-packs of beer and many other food products), newspapers and magazines, office paper and the co-mingled containers.
Waste Management has a contract with the town of Silt to provide single-stream recycling to town residents. The amount of material diverted from the garbage increased by 30 percent and participation in recycling by residents increased by 50 percent when the single-stream approach began, according to Travis Burke, district manager for the company.
"It just makes it so much easier for businesses and residents, so you see so much more participation," he said.
This week, Waste Management will begin a pilot program to try single-stream recycling in Aspen and on other routes in the valley, Burke said.
Customers who rely on curbside pickup need to find out from their particular hauler exactly what they can place in the curbside bin. If the bin is going to the county landfill, the list will be different than if it's going elsewhere.
"It does really confound the educational and outreach message," Cantrell said.
It's a source of confusion, landfill officials concede, and it brings up the bigger question of whether county government should play a role in recycling.
"From an economic standpoint, recycling is a loser," said Brian Pettet, director of the county Public Works Department, which oversees the landfill.
The landfill always has subsidized recycling, making enough money from the fees it charges for dumping garbage at the facility and other enterprises like the topsoil and compost it produces and sells, to cover the cost of recycling products such as glass and newspaper.
In many cases, household recyclables don't generate any revenue for the landfill, which simply pays to have them shipped elsewhere. Corrugated cardboard goes to Oklahoma for processing, for example. Newspaper was being taken to Arizona until a mill there closed, complicating that component of recycling for many entities. The landfill has six truckloads' worth of newspaper and has found a taker for just one - in California, said Hilary Burgess, office manager.
"The materials we produce in Colorado, they go a long, long way," said Scott Eden, co-owner of Intermountain Waste and Recycling, a Glenwood Springs company that offers services in the Roaring Fork Valley. "Our products make a journey, no doubt about it."
Recycling helps save valuable space at landfills, but it is not without a carbon footprint, given the transport and other resources required.
Pitkin County's recycling programs, which also include construction waste, rock, dirt and even food waste (a start-up program allows participants to compost food along with various products like paperboard and egg cartons), divert 70 percent of the waste that comes into the landfill from being buried there.
Still, Pettet said, it may be time for the government to turn household recycling over to the private sector. Regional recycling will be on the list of subjects to tackle when the landfill's new manager, Cathleen Hall, takes the helm next month, he said.
Consumer confusion over what they can and can't recycle in Pitkin County puts the focus on the bigger question: Should recycling be privatized?
"In the end, Pitkin County is interested in recycling in and of itself," Pettet said. That doesn't mean the government has to run a recycling program, though, he said. More and more, it's moving into the private realm.
"It's certainly a discussion we need to have with the Board of County Commissioners," Pettet said. "Where do we want to focus our resources? What's our best role? It's really a fundamental question."