New thinking on recycling needed
November 22, 2002
Interesting to see that recycling is on the table for inspection. I would like to give you my thoughts on the subject, but first some background.
I have been in the solid waste management business in Aspen since 1964, working for almost every company that ever hauled trash here. In 1989-90, as a vice-president and district manager for BFI, I started the first curbside recycling program on the Western Slope of Colorado, a program that is still, today, the model for every recycling program in Colorado.
Also in 1989-90, I donated a large amount of equipment to Pitkin County to help it start a fledgling recycling program and recycling center and at the landfill.
I served on the Valley Resource Management board from its inception until 1997, and as its chairman from 1995 until early 1997. I was the sole owner of Trash World, one of the first companies in the U.S. to publicly realize that recycling service was, in fact, a service and should be charged for as such.
In my opinion, Pitkin County has done an excellent job of keeping construction debris and yard waste out of the main landfill, and should be commended for doing so.
In an area where construction and yard waste has been huge, you have helped the process, in part, by high landfill rates for construction debris, although, as you may remember, I believe construction rates should be much higher simply because they are such a large part of the landfill volume.
Recommended Stories For You
Your recycling success in this area has been phenomenal. This is the area where you can actually save landfill space in a meaningful way, and Pitkin County should be proud of its efforts in this area. This is where high recycling, or landfill diversion numbers of 30 percent to 40 percent, or even more, come from.
As for your attempts to deal with material from curbside recycling programs, I believe Pitkin County has failed miserably.
As any honest landfill operator will tell you, the amount of material diverted from landfills in the form of household plastics, paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum, and other assorted commodities only amounts to 3 percent to 5 percent of total landfill volume. It is doubtful that Pitkin County does this well, once waste from the recycling center is put back into the landfill.
Although I have not been active in the solid waste business for several years, I am reasonably certain that handling and freight on curbside recycling materials (which includes your drop sites in Aspen and Basalt) eats up most of the $700,000 shortfall in your budget.
Inexperienced Pitkin County landfill managers in the early 199s put in the plant at the landfill that separates curbside material. This creates a huge payroll liability for the county, and a huge safety issue, as well.
Common knowledge at the time, and reinforced time and again since, said that such material needed to be separated at the source (curb) to make recycling remotely possible. Separating at a single location, such as Pitkin County does, makes the associated costs prohibitive.
There is no rational reason that Pitkin County needs to provide this service of separating material for people that could do it for themselves, including businesses.
Trash haulers can simply leave contaminated material on the curb with an explanatory note, something they should have been doing for years, but most have not, simply because they don’t want to be “enforcers” for the county, or create “hassles” for their customers.
I can guarantee that almost every load of “recyclable” material that goes into the recycling center at the landfill is contaminated to some degree, mostly because the people who should be separating it (the households or businesses) do a lousy job.
Pitkin County subsidizes this poor and sloppy performance of its landfill users by paying huge sums to clean it up, and this should not be necessary.
Operating in an artificial business environment, i.e. one that is subsidized by a tremendous amount of money, Pitkin County needs to examine carefully what it wants to include in its recycling program. We need to think locally simply because what may work in Denver or Seattle may not work in Pitkin County.
Separating nine different types of plastic off a conveyor belt at the landfill for days at a time to load one truck doesn’t make much sense when a truckload of separated, highly recyclable plastic offered for sale at market wouldn’t bring in enough revenue, before deducting costs, to buy dinner at The Little Nell. And a large percentage of that plastic will end up in a landfill for one reason or another, just in another location.
Thinking diametrically, you can be certain that almost 100 percent of the aluminum transported out of here pays its own way, and most likely will not end up in another landfill.
In terms of the bottom line, if we assume Pitkin County has a 20-year life at its landfill, diverting curbside materials from the landfill will save one year of landfill life over the 20 years. At a subsidy of $700,000 over 20 years (but let’s use $500,000 to be fair), that comes to $10 million. So what we’re saying, for $10 million you can buy one year of airspace at the landfill.
The difficult part of your job is, no doubt, wading through the public sentiment concerning recycling, but please keep in mind what I’m saying.
I have been saying these things for years in an effort to get people to do something beneficial for the environment, rather than to just throw money at an energy-and-money-wasting idea that we have accepted with a sort of mob mentality, regardless of its effectiveness.
If we step back and think rationally, Pitkin County will be ahead of the curve.