Survey says keep paying for Aspen recycling center
Aspen City Council is expected to decide the fate of the Rio Grande Recycling Center tonight, and after a monthslong survey of users, the overwhelming sentiment is to keep it open no matter the cost.
Pitkin County’s $250,000 annual subsidy to have a waste hauler pick up recyclables at the center ends in August, leaving it to the city to pick up the tab, the costs of which are growing.
The county removed funding of all public recycle centers outside of its own solid waste center when it required all haulers to provide curbside recycling at the beginning of the year.
The city has mandated haulers provide curbside recycling since 2005 but only about 30% of residents use that service, according to Liz Chapman, the city’s environmental health specialist.
She said reasons for not taking advantage of curbside are based mostly on misconceptions of recycling. They either think it’s not getting recycled by the haulers, or they don’t think it makes a difference. Others are worried about contamination or don’t understand how it works.
“Rather than getting it wrong they just don’t try,” Chapman said.
But at the recycling center, they feel like they have more control of where their cardboard, plastic milk jug or aluminum can goes.
Users also like it because it’s a gathering place where they run into other like-minded community members.
To increase curbside use, a massive education and marketing campaign would be needed, which is expensive, Chapman noted.
Anecdotal data indicate almost half of the users at the Rio Grande Recycle Center live outside of Aspen’s city limits.
That’s what Chapman and her team learned after conducting surveys both online and in person from March to May.
Over 90% of those who participated favor funding recycling operations at the center.
Out of 544 votes, 52% of those polled want the city to continue single-stream recycling, and nearly 45% prefer targeting specific materials for recycling, according to Chapman.
She estimated that staying with the status quo of single stream-recycling could cost as much as $500,000 a year for a vendor to collect, sort and send the materials to market.
Changing the center to targeted recyclable collection could reduce the cost to between $75,000 and $200,000 a year.
Over the past two decades, the value of recyclables, which include paper, aluminum and plastic, have dropped by 50% while labor, equipment and fuel costs have steadily risen, according to Chapman.
But the prices for selling materials have been dropping, especially because global markets that have traditionally processed recyclables have changed their policies.
“Local waste haulers have responded to this changing environment by charging more for their services,” Chapman said, noting that haulers lose $100 a ton on recycling.
Chapman is recommending that the city keep with the single-stream program for a year and then phase into targeted recycling in August of 2020.
She also plans to suggest to council that perhaps the city and county can split the costs.
“There’s a clear mandate from the community to keep it open,” Chapman said.
Cathy Hall, manager of the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center, said it’s not fiscally responsible to keep paying for a hauler to pick up recycling if it can be done at the curb.
“It doesn’t make sense to keep funding a center if people in the county have curbside recycling,” she said, adding that recyclables also can be dropped for free at the solid waste center.
Although recycling saves energy, conserves resources, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and saves landfill space, it requires technology, labor and money, Chapman noted. And costs continue to increase when dealing with contaminated loads, shifting consumer habits and preferences, and new policies in accepting materials enacted by other nations.
Despite those challenges, the Rio Grande has continued to provide Aspen and the surrounding community free access to single-stream recycling, textile recycling and household battery recycling 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In 2017, users of the center deposited just over 1,160 tons, which is 20% of materials diverted from the Pitkin County landfill.
If that material was not diverted, Aspen’s recycling diversion rate would drop from 27% to 20%.
Aspen’s diversion rate is high compared with the state’s, which is 11%.
Aspen’s contamination rate is 8%, which also is far lower than other resort communities and the state.
“Fifteen percent is what you hope for. … Statewide it’s 25%,” Chapman said.
She said despite the complexities of recycling, the ever-changing economical landscape and the costs involved, it’s worth it.
Consumption is the bigger challenge, Chapman said.
“Think about what you are going to do with the thing before you buy the thing,” she said.
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In April, the W Aspen Townie Food Truck (formerly called the Bitsy Trailer) made its debut as a curbside addition to the hotel set up to feed first responders and locals during the hotel’s “Safer at Home” pause.