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Pitkin County to rethink its recycling programs

Bob Ward
Special to The Aspen Times

Changes are on the horizon for Pitkin County’s recycling programs.

In a work session Tuesday with the Pitkin County commissioners, Solid Waste Manager Cathy Hall and Public Works Director Brian Pettet reported that the recycling of commingled materials (glass, aluminum and plastics) is costing taxpayers between $300,000 and $350,000 per year.

The county collects these recyclable materials at its drop-off stations in Aspen, Basalt and the Pitkin County Landfill but receives no revenue to offset the cost of gathering, baling and then transporting the mixed bottles, cans and other containers to a materials-recovery facility in Eagle County.

Commissioner George Newman summarized the feelings of virtually everyone in the room when he stated, “The status quo is not acceptable.”

Choosing an alternative to the status quo is complicated, however, partially because the existing 20-year-old program is successful in many respects. Pettet stated early in the meeting that the so-called Solid Waste Center presently diverts 60 percent of material destined for the landfill and, in so doing, extends the life of the facility.

Extending the life of the landfill is important because the cost of finding a site and relocating a trash dump in overpriced, NIMBY-prone Pitkin County will be extremely costly if not impossible. If a new landfill site within the county cannot be found, then Pitkin County will be in the uncomfortable and expensive position of having to truck its trash elsewhere.

Citing two decades of “diverting waste from the waste stream and extending the landfill’s life,” Pettet told commissioners, “We’re successful based on our historic mode of operation.”

Unlike the commingled recyclables, the county’s fiber-recycling program (cardboard, newspaper and office paper) does generate revenue but not nearly enough to offset the costs associated with the commingled program.

“We almost break even on fiber,” County Manager Jon Peacock said. “But the gap on commingled is so large.”

Therefore, county officials are faced with competing priorities; they need to keep diverting trash from the landfill, but they cannot afford the cost of the present system for doing so. In a rambling discussion of their policy options, commissioners grasped for more information about the market for recycled materials, the economics of waste-hauling and the effect on consumers of various actions they might take.

“The good news is not that we have too few options,” Peacock said. “We almost have too many.”

Commissioner Steve Child mentioned an effort in Maine where numerous landfills were closed and trash was redirected to a regional incinerator and burned to generate electrical power. Commissioner Michael Owsley wondered if the commingled materials could be put to use on site rather than trucked to another place.

“Could you crush it and use it as a cover?” he asked Pettet and Hall.

Pettet answered that it would be possible to reuse materials at the landfill but that it’s not cost-effective.

“In the end, you’re spending more than the commodity is worth,” he said. “You’re just getting rid of it.”

Commissioner Rachel Richards wondered about the merits of a bottle/can deposit program or curbside pickup of recyclables.

“I have no idea what other great options are out there,” she said. “We need to know, if we go here, then what do we really think the outcome will be?”

Eventually, the Board of County Commissioners gave staff members a set of overarching priorities for their trash-disposal and recycling programs and asked Pettet and Hall to return to a future meeting with more detailed information.

Diverting waste and extending the life of the landfill remain critical to commissioners, as does keeping costs reasonable for consumers. Commissioners agreed they want to continue encouraging the practice of recycling while also lowering the subsidies for recycling programs.


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