Summit County is middle of the pack on recycling in Colorado. Unless we find a new way to fund it, things could get worse
Nearly a quarter of all waste in Summit County doesn’t end up in the landfill, a ratio that’s impressive by rural Colorado standards but still lags behind in a state that’s a recycling slouch compared to the rest of the country.
Despite its reputation for environmental stewardship, Colorado only recycles 12 percent of its waste, a dismal portion compared to the national average of 34 percent, according to a study published Wednesday by public interest group CoPIRG and environmental group Eco-Cycle.
“We might think of ourselves as a green state but on average, each Coloradan is putting 7 pounds of trash a day in landfills,” CoPIRG director Danny Katz said in a statement. “Our policies in Colorado are pushing us to do the wrong thing — throw everything in the trash can.”
With a 23 percent recycling rate, Summit County came out ahead of major metro areas, including Denver and Arvada, but is still in the middle of the pack overall — and its entire recycling program faces existential challenges in the long term.
Summit County’s rate is dwarfed by Loveland and Boulder, the top two jurisdictions that recycle 61 and 53 percent of their trash, respectively. And while Summit is still ahead of Eagle County, which has an overall diversion rate of 17 percent, the town of Vail keeps 24 percent of its trash out of landfills. Pitkin County, home to Aspen, diverts 40 percent of its waste.
“We have a unique model in that we have our own landfill and materials recovery facility here, so a lot of mountain communities are looking to us to see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” said Jessie Burley, programs director for the High Country Conservation Center. “But I would say we trail a little bit behind.”
Pitkin County uses a pay-as-you-throw billing system, charging by volume of garbage rather than a flat rate. According to the study, communities with volume-based trash pricing generate nearly half as much waste as those that don’t, making it one of the most effective policies for reducing landfill waste.
Since it isn’t a home-rule jurisdiction, Summit County doesn’t have the authority to establish pay-as-you-throw pricing, but local municipalities do. Burley said HC3 is working with the Breckenridge Town Council to explore the option.
Garbage in, recycling out?
In the next five years, HC3 hopes to get Summit at or above the national average recycling rate. But the county’s very recycling model is approaching crisis, hamstrung by an unsustainable funding model and without a clear path forward.
Garbage disposal revenues at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park fund recycling here, a common model across the country but one that doesn’t make sense if the goal is to put less garbage in the ground.
“From our perspective, it’s really important for us to be able to pay for recycling separate from trash, because as we get better at recycling, the trash money is going to go away,” Burley said.
At the SCRAP, that’s already happening. And tanking prices for recyclable materials are making the situation worse, endangering not just recycling programs but also composting and slash pile disposal.
“We know moving forward that we just can’t continue to use tipping fees and garbage to fund recycling,” SCRAP director Aaron Byrne said. “So that’s our goal, is to separate the two.”
Last year, the county’s recycling program was imperiled by revenue shortfalls at SCRAP, prompting the county government to ask towns to impose an ordinance that would force trash haulers to bring Summit’s trash exclusively to SCRAP.
The measure drew pushback from some trash companies, who said tipping fees at SCRAP were too expensive and would force them to increase prices for customers. Ultimately, every town except Silverthorne got on board earlier this year. But it was only a short-term fix, and residents will have to confront the issue again next year.
“It’s not sustainable,” Byrne said. “We’re going to have to continue to seek additional funding and apply for grants and do whatever we can to keep recycling afloat. I think 2018 is going to be very costly.”
Soon, bottoming-out prices mean SCRAP will go from making low margins selling recycled materials to paying to get rid of them.
When that time comes, residents will have to figure out a new way to fund recycling programs. The top three options being considered are a new mill levy tax, a tipping fee surcharge or an increase in the sales tax.
“We would either have to eliminate programs here in Summit County or we would have to increase tipping fees higher,” Byrne said. “We really don’t want to do either of those.”
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