Snowmass council, county waste officials talk demolition trash at work session

Recycling incentives could help divert waste from near-capacity landfill

The Pitkin County Landfill is located off Highway 82 and will be expanding this summer.
Anna Stonehouse/Snowmass Sun file photo

A Pitkin County program that aims to divert construction and demolition waste from the landfill has Snowmass Village town staff and council members thinking about ways the town could do the same.

The problem is this: Pitkin County’s existing landfill located off of Highway 82 near Woody Creek is getting ever closer to capacity, and over the past several years, more than half the waste buried has been from home construction and demolition, according to county solid waste director Cathy Hall.

She estimated there’s less than a decade left before the landfill is full, even with an expansion already in progress. Even then, “It’ll go quick,” Hall said during an Aug. 9 council work session.

Part of the solution, at least in terms of postponing that max-capacity situation for a bit, could be programs that incentivize recycling some of that building waste. That’s exactly what the county initiative does, Hall and construction and demolition diversion specialist Michael Port explained to the council.

The county now requires a deposit of $1,000 per ton of waste that the county estimates will be produced when project crews get building or demolition permits through Pitkin County Community Development. (The department’s jurisdiction covers unincorporated Pitkin County land but doesn’t include the city of Aspen or the town of Snowmass Village.)

If the project crews can recycle 25% of all waste and 100% of all “recoverable materials” like concrete, clean wood and scrap metal, the county refunds the full deposit. Recycle 20% of all waste but miss the mark on recoverable materials and the county will issue a partial refund; anything less than 20% of all waste diverted means the full deposit stays with the county.

There’s also a tiered pricing structure for construction and development loads at the landfill that increases by the volume of waste and charges the highest rate for loads that haven’t sorted out recoverable materials for diversion.

The deposit system is “the crux of this program,” Porter said, and it isn’t chump change; with the size of some projects in Pitkin County, those deposits can hit six-figure sums, according to Hall.

“We’re hoping the free market is going to take hold. Some people, they have enough money, they don’t care. … But for the average Joe, you’re putting in your deposit and all your deposits for a building permit, and you’re going to say, ‘Wait a second, I’ve got to put down a $100,000 deposit’ — which isn’t unusual for this program — ‘I want this money back,'” Hall said.

So far, it seems to be working: The overall recycling rate at the landfill is about 17% over the past six months, but for those projects in unincorporated Pitkin County that are subject to the deposit, the recycling rate is closer to 68%, according to Hall.

Town staff are already in early talks with the county on how the program might extend to Snowmass Village, according to an agenda summary for the work session discussion. And Aspen city officials likewise had construction debris on their minds after an early July memo noted the need to extend the life of the landfill.

But it’s an especially pertinent consideration for the town given the unique building and construction situation in Snowmass Village.

The town is already 94% built out, and that remaining 6% of buildable land isn’t all necessarily ideal because of odd lot shapes, steep slopes and other factors, the town’s comprehensive plan from 2018 states. That means for folks who want to design their own home in the town from the ground up, the most likely option is demolition; the plan calls it a “tear down and replace mentality,” and it produces a lot more waste than construction or renovation.

One of the goals in that comprehensive plan is to discourage that mentality. But for those that must tear down, at least a program like Pitkin County’s could help divert some of that waste from the landfill.

There’s still a lot more discussion to be had before Snowmass Village could make the move on an initiative like the deposit program; the Aug. 9 discussion was an early-on informational one, not one that called for decisions or action from council.

“There’s a hundred questions that we would have to answer,” said assistant town manager Travis Elliott.

But members were generally supportive of moving forward with more consideration of the idea, so talks will continue — maybe even with a few answers to those many questions ahead.