Aspen moves to targeted collection at recycling center

Aspen City Council agreed Monday to change how it collects recycling at the Rio Grande Recycling in an effort to save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Council agreed to move to targeted materials collection next month instead of single-stream recycling for another year.

That’s because proposals from trash haulers came in significantly higher than anticipated due to the complexities and rising costs of the recycling markets, Liz Chapman, the city’s environmental health and sustainability specialist, told council during a work session.

“We had sticker shock,” she said.

She said she was anticipating bids to come in around $500,000, which is double what the county was paying a hauler to pick up recyclables at the Rio Grande Center.

Pitkin County earlier this year informed the municipal government that it was pulling its funding at the end of this month because the county moved to mandatory curbside recycling.

The county also offers free drop-off of recyclables at the solid waste center.

Chapman told council proposals came in between $560,000 and $750,000 for one year of single-stream service at current levels.

But she noted that those costs would likely increase because of fuel costs, anticipated contamination in the recyclables and commodity prices.

“It’s a huge gamble,” Chapman said.

And with a public education campaign to reduce contamination and offering year-round yard waste composting, the annual cost could climb to over $1 million.

Compare that to the collection costs of targeted materials between $225,000 and $450,000.

Specific materials like cardboard, glass, metals and yard waste will be collected in large bins and shipped directly to facilities that can sell or process the source-separated materials, Chapman explained.

She noted that two-thirds of what comes to the Rio Grande Center is glass and cardboard from local business owners who do not have the space for it.

Full-time temporary staffing will be required at the Rio Grande Center to ensure that people are recycling properly. That will cost another estimated $25,000, along with as much as $150,000 for a public education campaign about the changes.

The city was planning to move to targeted materials collection next year to give the public fair warning, but due to the high costs of single-stream recycling, it became a more immediate decision for council.

Since 2015, the city has mandated trash haulers to offer curbside recycling, but only 20% of Aspenites use it.

That is the most disturbing number for Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who said it’s shocking that 80% of people don’t use the service.

Now that the county has gone to curbside, she said both governments should share in the costs of an educational campaign to increase the number of people using service.

Richards also noted that because there is no market for recycling in the U.S. and a lack of will to take care of our own consumption, small communities like Aspen are facing challenges on this issue.

Chapman and other city officials hope that moving to targeted materials collection will compel people to use curbside to divert plastics and cartons.

By increasing curbside diversion to 50%, over 1,100 tons of single-stream recycling could be diverted, according to Chapman.

The Rio Grande Recycle Center is currently diverting 1,160 tons per year.

Pitkin County staff have indicated they would be partners in a targeted materials collection effort by participating in the collection of organic materials, textiles, books and batteries, Chapman said.

Councilman Skippy Mesirow said both options in front council were not good because one would “bankrupt us and the other sets us back.”

He offered a “door No. 3” option of closing the recycling center for a year and set up a innovation center complete with a heated tent and experts from around the world on the issue to come up with more aggressive solutions.

“When they can’t recycle they are going to be upset and they should be,” Mesirow said, adding it would get people’s attention and start a broader conversation.

The closing of the recycling center didn’t carry the support of his fellow council members but taking a more aggressive approach to waste, including food composting, is a movement they agreed on.