Aspen’s COVID-19 cardboard effect may be increasing trash loads
It’s been over a month since the city of Aspen stopped accepting cardboard recycling due to budget cuts, and it’s likely that the material is ending up in the local landfill.
Cardboard recycling is included in residential trash service by city ordinance, but it is not for businesses, many of which relied on the Rio Grande Recycle Center drop-off. Those businesses have included contractors, property management companies and bike and ski shops that regularly deal with large volumes of cardboard.
The elimination of cardboard drop-off service by the city comes during a time when ordering online is at an all-time high because of COVID-19 restrictions, and more people are dwelling in the Aspen area and are big consumers.
Josh Burnaman, director of operations at Alpine Property Management, said the company used the Rio Grande facility’s cardboard drop-off when their dumpster was full.
“Our cardboard dumpster is next to our trash dumpster and we are throwing away a good chunk of it and we feel bad about it,” he said. “It was a real hit to lose that service.”
Burnaman said there’s a huge uptick in cardboard coming in as clients are sending their packages directly to the Aspen office so the property management company can deliver them.
“We are bracing for not having an offseason, our rentals are full, people are staying longer, kids aren’t going to school,” he said.
Alpine Property Management’s cardboard dumpster in the alley behind Main Street was overflowing last week and the next scheduled pickup was Aug. 22.
“We are calling to have extra pickup,” Burnaman said.
Prior to the city’s cutting of cardboard services at Rio Grande Recycle Center, about 240 cubic yards of cardboard were picked up there every week by Mountain Waste & Recycling, according to Doug Goldsmith, the company’s regional sales manager. That’s the equivalent of filling a 600-square-foot apartment with a 10-foot ceiling — wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling — with flattened cardboard.
The city encourages businesses to drop off their cardboard at the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center, which is free, or pay for additional service from area waste haulers.
Goldsmith said he has not seen a corresponding increase in businesses signing up for additional cardboard pickup, noting there has been a surge in trash overall due to more consumption because of COVID-19.
What he has seen, however, is more cardboard in trash dumpsters.
“It’s going somewhere,” he said last week. “My guess is it’s all going in the trash.”
Cathy Hall, manager at the county’s solid waste center, said she has not seen an increase in cardboard drop-off at the landfill.
The city is saving $150,000 a year by ending its contract with Mountain Waste & Recycling for cardboard pickup at the Rio Grande center, as well as a planned capital investment of buying a compactor for $150,000.
“We are not excited to pull that service back either but it costs a lot of money,” said CJ Oliver, the city’s environmental health and sustainability director. “This is one of the very few things to eliminate without someone losing their employment.”
As a result of the COVID-19 economic crisis, the city is cutting $16 million from its budget. Department managers were asked to find 8% reductions in their operating budgets for the remainder of the 2020 budget year.
For Oliver’s department, the budgets cut were between 10% and 12%.
Goldsmith said the likelihood of contractors and other small operators who deal with a lot of cardboard making a trip to the landfill before its 4:15 p.m. closing time is questionable.
Mountain Waste & Recycling is the only hauler that runs a dedicated cardboard route in Aspen, which occurs six days a week.
It would cost a business $100 a month on average to add cardboard pick up, he said.
A majority of the users of the city’s free cardboard drop-off service were businesses located outside of Aspen, according to Liz Chapman, the city’s senior waste reduction and environmental health specialist.
However, they are likely servicing clients in Aspen.
Many downtown Aspen restaurants and retailers pay to have their cardboard picked up by haulers because of space constraints in the downtown core.
Jay Montano, who runs the Miners Building hardware and retail store, said he switched to daily cardboard pickup.
Cardboard generated from the Miners is brought across the street to Carl’s Pharmacy where the two stores use a compactor.
He said the amount of cardboard the two stores are processing is “insane.”
“No one is leaving,” he said of second-home owners and summer visitors.
While Aspen City Council members gave their blessing to proposed budget cuts in May, the ramifications of the elimination of cardboard recycling didn’t hit home until they started hearing from constituents.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein asked during a work session earlier this month if the service could be reinstated.
His colleagues agreed to put it on the back burner for the rest of the year and take a look at the program as part of the city’s overall waste management plan that’s being developed as a council top goal.
“I realize that some businesses don’t like to pay to pick up their cardboard, but every single resident in our community and in our county who pays for trash pickup is already paying for cardboard pickup,” said Councilwoman Rachel Richards at the July 27 meeting. “As a taxpayer myself, I have a hard time saying we’re going to spend $250,000 or $300,000 out of the general fund for service that people already have at their curb side.”
Chapman, who spent a month at the Rio Grande Recycling Center leading up to the elimination of cardboard drop-off, as well as afterwards, said many of the businesses that used the service don’t have storefronts where they would be able to have pickup.
Also, there is some rogue dumping of cardboard occurring at the Rio Grande center based on video camera footage, she added.
“It’s a lot of rental cars and Texas plates,” Chapman said.
She and Oliver said they hope people will take advantage of the recycling options available to them and to keep reducing, reusing and recycling.
“Decisions like these are tough for everyone — staff, council and the community — but we are encouraged that there are several other options for the public to continue to recycle their cardboard,” Oliver said.
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