Ask Eartha: Summit County recycling a surprisingly complex process
August 14, 2014
I see people putting their co-mingled recycling out for curbside pick-up, but I separate mine at the Breckenridge drop-off center. What is the difference?
— Molly, Breckenridge
Molly, thank you for the great question. I'm sure you're not the only one wondering the same thing. So let's dive in and take a closer look at recycling in Summit County.
The unintended consequences of the single-stream recycling process are that materials are easily contaminated and often never get recycled.
Single-stream recycling, what you see being picked up curbside, is designed to make recycling easy and convenient for residents.
However, with that level of convenience comes some unintended consequences once those materials leave your curbside. Single-stream allows the resident to put all recyclable materials into one container, and the waste hauler comes and picks it up.
From the curb, single-stream materials are put into one container on the truck and hauled to the Summit County Resource Allocation Park (SCRAP), also known as the landfill. At SCRAP, the single-stream material is dumped on a conveyor belt that runs through a baler.
The Summit County baler compacts the single-stream material for transport; the material is then taken to a materials recovery facility (MRF) in Denver, where it is sorted and sold on the commodities market.
Materials that lack market value or contaminated recyclables are taken to the landfill.
The unintended consequences of the single-stream recycling process are that materials are easily contaminated and often never get recycled. Take glass, for example. Glass is a recyclable material, but during the baling process it breaks into shards too small to recover. Once the other materials (like paper) become contaminated with broken glass, they become worthless as well. It is more cost efficient to landfill these materials than to clean them up for recycling. In Summit County, Jan. 1, 2015, is the deadline to remove all glass from your single-stream recycling. The best way to ensure your glass is being recycled is to take it to a free Summit County drop-off center.
Drop off centers are located in Frisco, Breckenridge and Dillon. They consist of several large roll-off containers, each dedicated to one recyclable material. This drastically reduces the level of contamination and increases the value of the materials when they are sold.
Materials accepted at county drop-off centers:
Tin and Aluminum
#1 Plastic Bottles
#2 Plastic Bottles
Batteries and Sealed Containers of Motor Oil
Neither single-stream recycling nor the county drop-off centers allow for household hazardous waste or electronic device drop-offs. If you have hard-to-recycle material, such as paints, household chemicals, electronics or appliances, the SCRAP will accept them for a small fee. It is very important to keep these hazardous materials out of the landfill. Proper disposal ensures it doesn't pose a danger to employees, wildlife and nearby communities.
If it's so complicated, why should we continue to recycle?
Recycling conserves natural resources, reduces damaging extraction processes, saves the energy needed to obtain raw materials and diminishes pollution problems.
In short, it's the right thing to do to ensure that future generations inherit an earth with the same opportunities as we have today. But there's another side of this story — it's a story about using less in the first place and about making responsible purchasing decisions.
We are a society of consumers, but we have a choice about what we buy and who we buy it from. Start asking tough questions about where materials come from and where they go at the end of their life cycle. Ask how a product was made, where it was made and by whom. Do you really need that product brand new, or can you live with a used or refurbished one?
Recycling is only as good as the market for materials, and even then most materials are not recycled infinitely or even recycled back into the same product. Reduce consumption first, then reuse products and materials, then recycle.
Here in Summit County, you should feel confident that your recycling — whether you use our free drop-off sites or single-stream recycling at the curb — is getting properly processed. Just remember, if you have curbside collection you need to start taking your glass to the drop sites.
If you have questions regarding recycling in Summit County, call the High Country Conservation Center at (970) 668-5703.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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