County drops some plastic recycling
April 29, 2009
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Local officials said Tuesday they will abandon efforts to recycle many common types of plastic beginning June 1.
The recommendation by High Country Conservation director Carly Wier was made after staff at the material recovery center found that recycling things like yogurt and butter containers is not cost effective.
The county will continue to recycle certain kinds of plastic, mostly milk jugs and soda bottles ” but no more yogurt and butter cups, ketchup bottles or Tupperware. Plastics #3 through #7 are often contaminated and more expensive to process, local recycling experts explained at a county commissioner work session Tuesday.
Most of those materials are sent to China for processing, which calls into question the fundamental environmental basis for recycling. Those plastics make up less than 1 percent of the county’s total recycling stream by weight.
All types of plastic together comprise about 4 percent of the total recycling stream by weight.
“We understand the outcry from the community is going to be fairly livid … There is a compelling argument to do what we’re doing,” said recycling expert Kevin Berg. “There’s no market, there’s no place for it to go. We’re struggling with what the community expects and is demanding.”
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Berg set his presentation against a backdrop of encouraging overall Summit recycling numbers, with a relatively high total diversion rate. Even during a tough economy, the local recycling operation is holding its own and finding markets for most products. But prices for the commodities have dropped steeply, and Berg said there’s only the slightest hint of a bounce back.
The decision elicited a
simultaneous outcry from County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier and county manager Gary Martinez.
“What? No way,” the pair said at nearly the same time. Dumping part of the recycling program that has been painstakingly built over years appeared counter-intuitive to Stiegelmeier and Martinez.
But Berg and Wier explained that the cost of processing those types of plastic is putting a drag on the whole operation.
“We don’t have great access to markets and transportation here,” Wier said. “Not all recycling is equal. The benefits vary by commodity.”
“We can’t lose the money we’re losing on plastics and continue to do everything else that we do,” Berg added.
The change will require more sorting by consumers and new displays at the recycling centers.
Wier also said she expects strong reaction from some citizens.
“We know it’s going to happen, especially from people who eat yogurt,” Wier said.
But there are alternatives, said assistant county manager Thad Noll.
“No one’s saying, ‘don’t eat yogurt.’ There are other ways of reducing our impact on the world,” Noll said. “We think we’re recycling by putting them all in containers, but we’re not,” he added, once again referring to the “lesser” plastics.
Berg and Wier framed the issue as one of consumer behavior.
Eliminating the less-valuable types of plastic from the waste stream is a consumption issue, not a recycling issue, they said. Buyers should try to avoid them when they can, although the tubs are ubiquitous.
That’s why Berg also said companies that produce the less-desirable plastics from raw materials should carry more responsibility for their products.
To make up for the change in plastic recycling, the High Country Conservation Center wants to boost other activities. One way to make a dent in the overall waste stream could be to start collecting food scraps and other organic materials for composting, Berg said.
Overall, the county needs to find ways to invest in systems to handle recyclables ” perhaps by improving the collection system. Funding could come from a new fee added to trash service fees to pay for “discard management,” as it’s called in Boulder.
Under the system used by some municipalities, residents pay between $1 and $3 per month to pay for boosting recycling infrastructure.
“In a big community like Boulder, it raises millions of dollars,” Berg said. “I know it’s a tax, but it goes directly to dealing with addressing the stuff that people are screaming about how they don’t want it to go to landfill.”