Recycling seems an obvious choice, but also comes with mounting costs
Transplants to Summit County in particular, and there are quite a few, realize pretty quickly that recycling around the mountain region has its fair share of challenges.
Despite the distinctive aspects of being a resort community, and with it high-trafficked roads and swelling weekend populations, the popular estimate of year-round residents sits at 30,000, technically making it a rural area. Any precinct with fewer than 50,000 falls into the category, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
To encourage active recycling, the county offers a handful of free drop-off sites for items including tin and aluminum cans, plastic bottles and cardboard. There’s the newly relocated center in Breckenridge on Coyne Valley Road north of the Colorado Mountain College campus, another in Frisco in the County Commons and one at Dillon Town Hall. There’s also a monthly mobile drop center that shows up to Summit Cove Elementary in Dillon the first full week of each month.
For many, recycling is about convenience, explained Jessie Burley, community programs manager for the High Country Conservation Center (HC3). And naturally those around the county who don’t have the benefit of a trash service that provides an individual recycling bin or large complex dumpster are less likely to invest the extra effort and visit a drop-off area. On top of that, any modification to the local policies, such as removing glass from the list of recyclables in 2015, acts as an additional obstacle.
“We field all of those questions for the public on our recycling hotline,” said Burley. “Every time we have a change in the program, it might turn some people off. People don’t like change. It’s just one more thing in the recycling program to make it confusing, and not as convenient.”
She noted that the glass diversion program, which was initiated to avoid decreasing the value of other items by preventing glass contamination in single-stream, or mixed recycling, has been quite successful. Glass is still accepted at the drop-off sites and then taken directly to the Coors’ Rocky Mountain Bottle Co. in Golden to be made into new bottles. Even so, with few effortless ways to dispose of glass bottles in the community, most are now just thrown away.
FAR FROM HOME
The trash is also where countless recyclables end up each year, in part because of the lack, for a large swath, of these convenient, co-mingled curbside-style bins — or as an alternative separate canisters for single products. A study conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment in 2014 that looked at the economic benefits of recycling in the state still estimated that approximately $170 million worth of recyclables are still buried in the ground in just Colorado.
That idea is the concern of some seasonal workers for one of the county’s largest employers, Vail Resorts, for instance, who were disappointed to discover that such recycling containers, five or six at multiple locations, were removed from Keystone employee housing in November. Bins were pulled out from both the three Tenderfoot Lodge and three Sunrise apartment buildings, with six small bins now relocated to the side of the Keystone Employee Center on Tennis Club Road next to the Shell gas station.
Although just a short distance from Sunrise, Tenderfoot is 1 mile away from the new bins. For those without access to a car, which is a good number, it’s about 25 minutes on foot, meaning few are going to go to that extent to recycle. Everything just ends up in the garbage.
“You could probably catch a bus, but then you’d have to wait 20 minutes to come back,” one veteran employee who asked not to be named told the Summit Daily. “So somebody without a car, minimally it would take 30 minutes to an hour to drop recycling off at the employee center.
“I believe in recycling,” the employee continued. “Now we have to go a lot out of our way to do it, it’s just kind of frustrating. I’m sure most people aren’t going through that much effort. There’s no place nearby so I’ve got a pretty good pile of cardboard.”
(Because Vail Resorts has a restrictive policy that prevents workers from speaking to the media without first receiving approval from Vail management, the names of employees quoted in this story have been withheld to avoid them facing punishment. “Only members of the Company’s public relations department are permitted to provide explanations or comments to the press,” reads the employee handbook.)
The six available bins for recycling — three for plastic bottles and aluminum cans, two for glass bottles and one for cardboard — are intended for nearly 1,000 on-site employees. There are solitary receptacles at some Summit Stage bus stops and some recycling cans at the Keystone Mountain House mostly intended for the restaurant, but those too are inconvenient for most inhabitants, especially with trash bags full of recyclables slung over one’s shoulder.
“Keystone made the decision to relocate recycling bins from the Sunrise and Tenderfoot employee housing buildings to a centralized location nearby on the north side of the Keystone Employee Center to ensure recycling is done in a responsible manner and is properly sorted in a way that will meet the standards of the county recycling facility,” the resort said in an email statement provided by communications manager Sara Lococo. “Vail Resorts is committed to offering robust recycling programs at our resorts, and Keystone has led the way in developing comprehensive programs that have recycled over 2 million pounds per year for the last two years.”
Another newer Vail Resorts employee confirmed during orientation the director of recycling told them that people were using the recycling area more like a garbage than as intended, so the management company was forced to pay people to sort all of it properly.
“They said that the cost was part of it, but mostly people were throwing trash into it,” the employee said. “The recycling was next to the dumpsters, so when the dumpsters got full, people would fill recycling with trash.”
When asked, people will almost always tell you they’re happy to recycle, but again, often with the caveat that it doesn’t come with any extra demands over simply choosing to drop a soda can or newspaper in a blue bin rather than a brown one. Even when those resources are available, people are still prone to being lackadaisical.
“I’m always shocked by everyone’s complete unawareness,” said Thad Noll, assistant county manager. “In so many office buildings there’s two cans: one’s garbage clearly and one’s clearly recycling. And if you look in the containers it’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ They just throw it in. If people using it don’t care, then the thing becomes a garbage can, very quickly. It’s unbelievable.”
The drop-off locations around the community also necessitate that people sort their own recyclables, putting each item in the correct dumpster, whereas the curbside bins provided at homes by some HOAs and housing boards allow for co-mingled use. Those mixed items are then collected by the hauler and taken to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) at the landfill in Dillon to be baled and sent down to be sorted in Denver.
For other, more harmful materials that might end up in the landfill, such as electronics, pharmaceutical drugs and hazardous chemicals, Summit County is ahead of the curve. To help neutralize this mounting problem, a mill levy was included on the November ballot in 2014 to request that citizens earmark about $4 million annually to help the county government accomplish a few different objectives, one of which was water-quality protections related to unintended materials landing in the drinking water. Measure 1A passed and now provides north of $600,000 each year toward this goal through 2022, with the other funds split between the ambulance and 911 emergency services.
“Our landfill sits above the Dillon Reservoir,” said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, “that’s where things are headed to. Whether it’s electronic waste or whether it’s household hazardous chemicals or whatever else, these are all things that are ultimately a threat to your waterways and water quality.”
For the more mundane, everyday recyclables though, the solution hasn’t been as clear. There’s a financial side to recycling in conjunction with the environmental benefits, of course — these items can be turned in for cash and for more if they’re not contaminated with other objects like broken glass — and is a large part of why trash services have been willing to pick up the products for free and why businesses put out bins. But as prices for recyclables have fallen on the commodity market, to the extent that it is now costing haulers money to collect them separately from garbage — that business model has come into question. Now instead of receiving money for recyclables, most are just happy if they don’t have to pay to unload them.
“Commodity prices are in the toilet at the moment,” said Noll. “By the time it’s all done, they’re not paying us anything anymore, they’re just accepting it. So we’re paying the transportation cost, we’re paying the processing cost on our end. But the haulers have agreed, years ago, that they would cover that gap, just so that they could offer that to their customers.”
These increased costs are leading more companies not only in Summit County, but around the state and throughout the country, to reconsider providing recycling programs. Or at least in offering it for free.
“There’s a shift that we’re seeing,” said Aaron Byrne, solid waste director for the county, “and it’s a perfect storm of events taking place with low fuel prices and the cost of a barrel of oil is down, so plastic manufacturers are making virgin materials rather than use recycled materials. We’re in a time right now where we can plan on looking at a future of higher program recycling costs.
“There’s a cost associated with (recycling) that’s been hidden from people and our culture a long time,” Byrne added, “and we’re going to be faced with changing people’s mindset to keep it all out of the landfill.”
While markets settle and potential new business models are established for reusing aluminum, plastic and paper products, frustrations over struggles to do what has long been taught the right and environmentally-conscious action will persist. That’s especially true in the more bucolic scenery of the mountain region like Summit County.
“It doesn’t really make sense,” expressed the veteran Vail Resorts employee of the revised recycling policy. “It’s definitely a mixed message, with Vail advertising that talks about being a green company, then they stop recycling here. If they told us how to sort it, then people probably would have sorted it.”
The conditions surrounding recycling remain complex, though. And if they proceed as they are into the future, or perhaps even get worse, no matter the conservational aspects, fewer businesses and communities may be willing to operate on a ‘probably.’
“We’ll always have recycling centers,” said Davidson. “We know our population well enough to know that a lot of people are very much committed to sorting, separating and bringing us high-quality recyclables. A lot of residences in Summit County are condominiums, so is there more that we could do somehow working with HOAs to make it easier for people to do recycling?” He thought about it for a moment before deciding: “That just kind of depends.”
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