Crested Butte resident Lis Collins has recycled for years, separating plastic from trash and sorting glass. Despite a recent increased expense on her trash bill, she said she does it as a matter of principle — to prevent filling landfills with items which can be re-used.
“Look at the oceans and the sea of plastic out there,” Collins said. “My kids laugh at me, but I have been against plastic straws from the beginning. The smaller the carbon footprint, the better.”
Yet, the rising cost of recycling — paired with shrinking markets for materials — is forcing some cities nationwide to do away with the practice. Even locally, residents are feeling the financial crunch as expenses are passed on to customers by some waste companies.
Still, community will and smart business practices seem to be enough to sustain a 30-year program in Gunnison County designed to promote environmental sustainability.
In the last two years, the Chinese government has restricted or banned a number of recyclable materials it once accepted for processing. The crackdown was due to the amount of “dirty” waste — such as food and non-recyclable materials — mixed in with items to be recycled, plus the rising cost of labor. The restrictions have trickled down in higher costs for other countries such as the United States.
The cities of Philadelphia and Memphis have ended their programs. In other places, the costs are being passed on to consumers.
Cost increase, improper practice
Recycling in Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte is handled through Waste Management. Town managers Dara MacDonald and Joe Fitzpatrick both confirmed a recent price increase to the monthly rate paid by households. The increase was aimed at addressing “declining revenues on recycling,” MacDonald said.
In Gunnison, Public Works staff told City Council it has examined eliminating commercial recycling altogether and potentially fining residents a “hazard fee” if recycle sorting is not performed correctly, or bins are overloaded. A committee has been formed to seek recycling solutions and is expected to make more definite recommendations to council. An educational campaign is being considered as well.
Public Works Director David Gardner noted city crews have had to address recycle bins containing mixed materials — such as aluminum, glass and cardboard in one bin. Nonrecyclables are mixed in the bins as well.
Gunnison County Recycling Center will not accept unsorted materials — leaving city employees to sort the materials themselves, a time-consuming practice. Also, increases in commercial shipping volume have led to some businesses disposing of cardboard — which can be recycled — in trash dumpsters, increasing the amount of refuse that goes in the landfill.
Gardner estimates commercial recycling takes 14 hours per week, and eliminating it would allow money for more pressing needs.
Running it like a business
Gunnison County Public Works Director Marlene Crosby said the aim of the county’s recycling program is to run it like a business. She recalled county leaders considered doing away with recycling during the last economic downturn.
However, she said, public input convinced County Commissioners to continue the program. Commissioners approved a surcharge at the landfill to help fund recycling.
“Each year during budget we calculate how much product we will receive in the upcoming year and try and (estimate) a volatile market,” Crosby wrote in an e-mail. “That helps us determine how much the recycling surcharge should be each year.”
Crosby said another important factor is the volume of refuse delivered to the landfill. During a recession, she said, there is less trash at the landfill, and consequently less volume from which to collect a surcharge.
This year, the recycling surcharge is $14.32 per ton. So, for every compacted load that is $49 per ton, $14.32 of that charge funds recycling.
Products are marketed to a number of vendors. Aluminum, Crosby explained, pays the most, although its value is down this year. Glass is hauled to the Front Range, and no money is made on it, she said, but the practice keeps glass out of the landfill. Newspapers and magazines, office paper and No. 1 and No. 2 plastics are sold to brokers paying the best price per ton, or who can pick up the materials most quickly, Crosby said.
But contaminated products are also a problem for the county’s recycling program. Treated cardboard and greasy pizza boxes cannot be recycled, and the county continues to see contamination of plastics it does recycle with those it doesn’t accept — namely plastics No. 3 through No. 7.
“Residents could definitely help make our program more successful by discarding their own trash so that we don’t have too,” Crosby said. “Our trash bill is often $700-plus per month. The only thing we throw away are items that are too badly contaminated to use, such as pizza boxes still full of food and trash.”