Volunteers dig through trash at the landfill to study what Summit County throws away
KEYSTONE — The Summit County Resource Allocation Park landfill is the focus this week of a waste composition study, which aims to find out what Summit is throwing in the garbage and where the county could focus recycling efforts for more efficient waste diversion.
With the Gore Range on the horizon and the sun high in the sky, volunteers and staff from the High Country Conservation Center watched as two fresh garbage bags plopped open on a table in a fenced-off clearing near the landfill.
The crew, wearing gloves and protective equipment, started rummaging through all the odds and ends Summit residents discarded this week: coffee cups, Styrofoam plates, dog chew toys, shoes, CDs, barbecue tongs, pistachio shells, bottles, food and the other standard muck produced by a resort community.
No, this is not state-sanctioned dumpster diving for fun. The volunteers worked to sort waste items into pink bins on the ground labeled with nearly two dozen categories, including magazines, newspapers, food waste, textiles, electronics, paint, construction and demolition debris, glass, food and beverage containers, plastic bottles, Styrofoam, plastic bags, cardboard, and so on.
The containers then were weighed and logged to determine how much of each item is being disposed. The items then are recycled if they are salvageable or tossed into the landfill.
In 2018, Summit County diverted 20% of recyclables from the landfill. That’s compared to 35% state- and nationwide. The numbers are dismal for a county that has a Zero Waste Task Force aiming to divert all recyclables away from the landfill.
In an effort to find out where Colorado residents are failing to properly dispose recyclable and compostable materials, the state is funding studies like this to find trends and formulate local waste and recycling solutions based on the data.
“Ultimately, the data will tell us what is in the landfill, and if there are any similarities with communities across Colorado, although we expect it to be the same with some variances,” said Rachel Zerowin, community programs manager for the High Country Conservation Center. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in Summit County, and this is going to tell us the best place to start.”
The study, which is facilitated by the Conservation Center, was funded by the county and the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. The study is taking place through Thursday, July 11, with another composition study scheduled for three days in September.
Zerowin said the two studies are meant to compare waste during peak season, when there are many visitors in town, with shoulder season, when it’s mostly locals creating waste.
As far as trends seen in Colorado communities when it comes to waste, there’s not much that is terribly surprising. Consultant Alisha Archibald, who works for Colorado Springs subcontractor A2 Solutions and is a board member for Recycle Colorado, has been working at these sorting sites across the state. Archibald said Summit is producing a lot of waste from single-use plastics.
“Plastic bags, we’ve got gobs of plastic bags,” Archibald said. “There are a lot of one-time use items: disposable plates, silverware, cups. There’s also a lot of food being wasted.”
Archibald said Colorado is “very far behind” when it comes to recycling. She also noted the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — and that the actions were listed in order of priority. Residents, she said, should focus on reducing how much they consume and using what they have before considering items that will end up in recycling or landfill.
Graham Cottle, an engineer with project contractor Souder, Miller & Associates, noted that the problem has been going on for a long time and that there needs to be a major shift in how the public looks at waste and recycling to start turning the tide on global pollution.
“It would be great if we could get people to come here for a morning at the sort table. It would drive home to people that diverting wasting from the landfill is important,” Cottle said. “It’s a major challenge, and I really hope it doesn’t take another generation to take it up. It would be great if we could start switching things up now.”
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