Pitco gets earful over possible cuts to its recycling program | AspenTimes.com

Pitco gets earful over possible cuts to its recycling program

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Pitkin County officials have been called, e-mailed and pulled aside on the street by citizens concerned by news that the county may scrap its popular recycling program.

“Ever since the article came out, there’s been enormous support or the recycling program,” said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s director of public works. “People say that it’s the one feel-good program they are willing to support no matter how much it costs.”

County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who wasn’t in town when the landfill and recycling programs came up for review, said she’s been contacted and pulled aside by more than a dozen people who said they want to see the program continue.

“I got a bunch of e-mails that said we shouldn’t give up recycling,” Clapper said.

She added that she isn’t in favor of scrapping the recycling program, even if it is a money loser, “because it’s the right thing to do.”

Recycling and the landfill came before the commissioners last week as part of the annual budget process. The program became an issue when the commissioners learned the “subsidy” for recycling, paid out of fees collected at the landfill, amounted to $677,000.

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The recycling program made headlines last week after the commissioners questioned whether it should continue. The county has been struggling all year with the worsening economic climate and its effects on tax collections. By September, the county’s revenues were about $2 million short of the already pessimistic projections set last year.

Pettet, whose department runs the landfill, said the county has three separate recycling programs, all of which are undergoing a cost-benefit analysis.

The oldest and most familiar program is consumer recycling of newspaper, cardboard, plastic, glass and aluminum. The program has been in effect since the early 1980s, Pettet said.

Contrary to popular opinion, all of the consumer recycling programs “lose” money, including aluminum cans. Pettet said the bulk of the cost is tied to transporting the materials to recycling plants.

The market for raw recycled goods, with the exception of amber glass, isn’t particularly strong. The supply of empty milk bottles far outstrips the demand from manufactures who reuse the bottles to make garbage bags, fleece and a number of other goods.

“The more people purchase goods made from recycled materials, the better the market for the items we handle through the recycling program,” Pettet said.

The aggregate recovery program is a more recent program at the county landfill. When excavators show up with a load of excess soil and rock from a construction site, they are directed to an area where the county keeps a crusher. The gravel and fill dirt that comes out of the aggregate recycling program is resold, at a profit, to the construction industry.

Employees at the landfill are currently excavating the rocks and dirt dumped before the aggregate program began. Although it’s just a guess, employees estimate there may be as much as 250,000 cubic yards of fill that can be extracted and recycled.

A cousin of the aggregate recovery program is the county composting program, which diverts timber, yard waste, wood scraps and other compostable items from being dumped with the garbage. The soil that comes out of the compost piles is sold to landscapers, gardeners and others looking for good topsoil.

Pettet said that even though the latter two programs don’t generate a lot of money, they will, over the long run, save county taxpayers a bundle by extending the life of the landfill.

“This is probably the last landfill that will be built in Pitkin County, so the longer we can keep it running, the better,” he said.

Once the landfill is full, the county and its customers at the landfill will be required to pay for their garbage to be hauled to distant landfills around Colorado or other western states.

The county is also planning to close, or at least scale back, the consumer recycling drop-off center at Rio Grande Park. Pettet said the Obermeyer family, which wants to redevelop the industrial center between the courthouse and the park, and the city of Aspen are working with the county to come up with alternative sites for drop-offs.

Pettet said most of the cardboard that is left at the Rio Grande drop-off area comes from commercial businesses, rather than households. It’s not clear whether the county every really intended to subsidize business in such a manner, especially in light of the fact that cardboard recycling doesn’t come close to covering its costs.

So when the commissioners take a look at the hard numbers on recycling early next year, they will have plenty to consider.

“We’re bringing these programs forward to commissioners with the costs of each program, so they can make an informed choice about what they want to do,” Pettet said.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]