Recycling role models |

Recycling role models

Pitkin County has built one of the top recycling programs in the Rocky Mountain region by appealing to the environmental ethic of its residents.

But to reach an even higher level will require the county to collect a broader range of recyclable materials and force mandatory recycling through legislation. Those tools are widely used elsewhere in the country by top recycling programs, an exhaustive study indicates.

The study conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency examined the keys to success for 18 towns and cities regarded as “record-setters” in the recycling business. The study found that 11 of the 18 communities rely on state or local ordinances requiring residents to separate trash from recyclable materials ” a concept that’s standard in the eastern United States but foreign in much of the West.

The mandatory recycling programs were complemented by aggressive “pay as you throw” pricing policies for garbage collection, a tiered approach that makes customers pay dearly as they generate more waste. The idea is to provide an incentive to reduce what gets thrown in the dumpster.

Governments in the Rocky Mountain region, by and large, haven’t adopted incentives to divert trash from the landfill, according to Eric Lombardi, executive director of Ecocycle, a nonprofit organization that created a recycling program in Boulder County in 1976. The Rocky Mountain states, he said, are “landfill heaven.” They provide cheap land for trash dumps so the incentive to divert recyclable materials and organic matter is negligible. States such as New Jersey, where land is scarce, make recycling mandatory.

“The key difference is there’s not leadership from the public sector,” said Lombardi.

He said it is time for the Rocky Mountain states to stop subsidizing landfills with cheap land and low fees for dumping garbage. Charging fees that more accurately reflect the long-term costs of maintaining a landfill will let the market play a greater role in forcing recycling, according to Lombardi. That will only happen when local governments get more firmly behind recycling efforts.

In Lombardi’s opinion, Boulder and Pitkin County are the cream of the recycling crop in the Rocky Mountain region. But the effort in the mountain states as a whole pales in comparison to recycling in other parts of the country.

A role model

Out of the 18 cities and towns in the study performed for the EPA, the borough of Chatham, N.J., most closely resembled Aspen in size and affluence. Chatham had a population of about 8,300 in the early 1990s.

Chatham generated about 16 pounds of garbage per household per day, a figure slightly higher than the national average. It’s common for the amount of household garbage to be higher in areas where the household income is higher, the study noted. In other words, affluence begets “affluenza.”

Although it produced a lot of garbage, Chatham managed to keep 65 percent of its residential waste out of the landfill. About 22 percent of the garbage generated in Chatham is recycled; another 43 percent comes from composting. Comparable figures aren’t available for Aspen.

In other words, while Chatham residents generated an average of nearly 16 pounds of garbage per day, only an average of 5.5 pounds actually made it to the landfill to be buried.

Like most of the other record-setting recycling communities in the study, Chatham’s collection and composting of leaves plays a huge role in reducing garbage. Composting of leaves is mandatory, as bags won’t be accepted by the trash hauler that contracts with the town, according to the study.

Rather, the town started collecting bagged leaves for composting in 1994. Leaves are picked up at curbside once a week from mid-October to mid-December. Loose leaves can also be raked by homeowners to the curb, where they are collected by a municipal vacuum truck or a “salad-tonk truck,” the study said.

Chatham also provides residents with a drop-off collection for yard trimmings from April through December.

Fines for not recycling

Chatham’s curbside collection of commingled recyclable materials started in 1992. Twenty-one materials are collected outside of homes, including mixed paper, metal clothes hangers and latex paint cans. Collection occurs twice a month.

Participation is mandatory. New Jersey adopted statewide regulations more than a decade ago to reduce garbage and boost recycling. Chatham added teeth with a local ordinance making it illegal to mix recyclables and garbage.

The ordinance allows for spot-checks of garbage and recycle piles outside of homes. Fines for violators can range from $25 to $1,000, but no fines had been levied at the time of the study in the late 1990s.

Chatham officials told the authors of the study that allowing commingling of recyclables was a key to compliance. The easier the system is for homeowners, the more they will participate.

Chatham’s recyclable materials are taken to a central clearinghouse where a magnetic separator removes the metal. A contraption called an “air classifier” separates plastics and aluminum from the heap, then an “eddy current” separates plastics from aluminum. The remainder of materials are separated by hand.

Tips for a good program

In 1996, the borough spent $674,000 on trash, recycling and composting services, or about $243 per household, the study said. Only 10 percent was spent on recycling, 25 percent on collecting and composting yard trimmings, and 65 percent on garbage collection.

The high cost of landfill fees, which are paid to dump garbage, made the recycling and composting cost-effective for the town. The curbside recycling applies to single-family homes and multifamily buildings of up to four residences, but not to large apartment buildings or condominium complexes, something the borough hoped to change.

The study for the EPA also profiled the Colorado Front Range city of Loveland among its record-setting recyclers. Loveland diverted 56 percent of garbage generated, at the time of the study. About 19 percent of waste was recycled and 37 percent was composted.

The study stressed that collection of leaves and yard trimmings was a key to diverting waste from landfills. That’s an area where the Roaring Fork Valley is weak. Carbondale designates special dumpsters for leaves and tree branches for about one month, from mid-October to mid-November. No such drop-off site is established seasonally in Basalt or Aspen, although residents can take their yard waste to the dump.

The EPA study said another tip for creating record-setting recycling programs is to adopt a “pay-as-you-throw” system that hits the heaviest trash generators hardest in their wallets. Towns and cities should also require trash haulers to include at least a minimal level of curbside recycling.

Forcing the famed independent-minded Westerners to recycle is something that hasn’t been attempted yet, at least not widely. Boulder has come the closest.

“We changed the rules of the game,” said Ecocycle’s Lombardi.

Trash haulers in Boulder must include recycling in their base price rather than provide it for an extra fee, Lombardi said. Therefore, residents are encouraged to recycle because they are already paying for it.

The city has also adopted the pay-as-you-throw concept to make it worthwhile financially for households to reduce the amount of garbage they generate.

More information on the 18 record-setting recycling communities can be found at the EPA’s Web site:

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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