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Public effort makes Pitkin County landfill stand out as state leader

Pitkin County leads the state with a 48% composting and recycling rate

A bear digs through trash at the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center.
Cathy Hall/Pitkin County landfill director

Pitkin’s high composting and recycling rate can be chocked up to the care and consideration of local residents, as well as other economic drivers. 

Pitkin County leads the state with a 48% composting and recycling rate, as detailed in the State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado report. 

This is the sixth annual report drafted by nonprofit Eco-Cycle, and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) said last week it started to look into Colorado’s “abysmal recycling rate,” this year reaching just 16%. 



So what is Pitkin County doing so differently? 

County officials credit much of the effort to increase recycling and composting rates to high trash tipping fees, the fees community members must pay for trash pickups per ton. 




At Pitkin Solid Waste Center, compactor trash truck fees total $64.50/ton, while commercial recycling costs almost half of that at $35.50/ton. 

“Pitkin County has probably some of the highest trash tipping fees of the state, and we do that because we try and discourage trash going in,” said Cathy Hall, Pitkin County’s solid waste landfill director. “If you’re paying more for trash when you can pay a lot less for recycling or compost, we try to make that economic driver an incentive.” 

Diverting as much waste as Pitkin County does is heavily reliant on the passion and care of the community, said Hall.

“Without residents, we can’t make this happen without them participating,” she said. “We are putting the diverting opportunities in place, and it’s the community that is using them.” 

An aerial view of the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center.
Cathy Hall/Courtesy photo

In general, recycling and composting simply costs less than the trash fees, and that alone makes it accessible for residents to contribute to greener waste solutions. Even at the individual level, loose trash costs residents about $98/ton, but compostable food waste is just $15/ton. 

Compost is 30% of total waste diversion in Pitkin. “Composting is the greatest diversion program in the county. The material is generated, processed, and distributed in the community. So no long-distance travel is required,” Hall was quoted in a recent news brief. “It stays right here in the Roaring Fork Valley.” 

According to Hall: “We put a lot of effort into diverting waste from the landfill, though landfilling is the nature of what we do, but we really focused on anything we can keep out of the landfill we do.” With almost half of all waste being successfully diverted, the lifespan of the landfill is significantly greater than what it otherwise could be.”

Hall said that at current rates of solid waste, the landfill has about eight years left, and diverting is the only way to stretch that time out to last as long as possible, and the people are listening.

BEST PRACTICES

As the leading county, Pitkin serves as a model for the state. Boulder ranked No. 2 in recycling and composting programs at 38% diverted of residential and commercial waste. 

In this annual report, Colorado’s diverted waste rate was just 16% in 2021. This is slightly higher than in 2020, when Colorado diverted 15.3% of waste. Diverted waste includes all landfill waste that is recycled or composted. 

But Colorado is succeeding at only half the national average rate of 32% of waste diverted to greener solutions. 

Danny Katz, the executive director of CoPIRG, wrote: “In 2021, Colorado landfilled almost 6 million tons of material — roughly 95% of which could have been recycled or composted.”

A compost pile at the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center.
Cathy Hall/Courtesy photo

To compare the data from each solid waste center across the state, Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG speak with each municipality and county to assess what presented as a challenge or not, and to collect every data point and find the most common denominator between each.

“They try to compare apples to apples with other counties,” said Hall, “and to make the huge amount of data available comparable with different counties. This is just purely municipal solid waste.” 

This means that although Pitkin is leading in municipal solid waste diversion at 48%, there is much more the county does to help make landfills greener.

LEADING IN OTHER WAYS

Pitkin is leading the state in construction and demolition debris, but that does not go into this report, said Hall.

“Construction and demolition debris is our biggest impact on the landfill, so we have an incredibly robust program that focuses on and incentivizes diverting that material out,” she said. 

Additionally, because the State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado 2022 uses the data compiled through 2021, programs that went into effect in Pitkin in 2022 have yet to contribute to these reported diversion rates. 

In June 2022, Pitkin County began the Motherlode Mercantile, a resale alternative to the landfill. “Next year, we are diverting furniture, household goods, and construction reusable materials through our store, and those numbers will count next year,” said Hall, emphasizing the ability this program has to bring reasonably priced goods back into the community. 

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