Ask Eartha: The trials and tribulations of waste diversion (column) | SummitDaily.com

Ask Eartha: The trials and tribulations of waste diversion (column)

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily

Dear Eartha,

Every time I go to an event in Summit County, it seems like the zero-waste guidelines have changed. Sometimes, compostable cups can go into the compost bin, sometimes they can't. And what about paper plates? I'm confused about recyclables, too, especially plastic. I want to be a good steward, but I cannot keep up! Help! — Pat, Dillon

Pat, I feel your frustration. Zero waste encompasses a lot. If you didn't read my article last week, I spoke in depth about the concept "zero waste." Whoever thinks waste diversion is easy is deluding themselves because it's not. This is one of the reasons the state of Colorado's recycling rate is one of the lowest in the country. It takes dedication and determination to recycle and compost well. Yes, one can succeed at recycling and composting, and one can fail. Whether or not you succeed or fail all has to do with whether or not your recycling and composting end up in the landfill instead of where it is supposed to go. Too much contamination? In the landfill it goes. But, "why?" you ask. My answer is this: Contamination is either dirty recyclables or unrecyclable material and the Material Recovery Facility's staff (This is where your recycling goes) does not have the time or resources to decontaminate all the contamination. So, mark my words: When in doubt, throw it out! It's a hard truth, I know.

To add more confusion, the guidelines for what to do with your waste really depends on your locale. For example, rural communities like Summit County have limitations on what they can recycle because it is more difficult to haul materials. So, if you're traveling and you want to be a good steward, do your homework. Knowing what is locally recyclable and compostable and what is not is the key to success. Things are always in flux when it comes to these guidelines, so it is important to educate yourself. The staff at the High Country Conservation Center are here to help you. If you're unsure of something, please feel free to call HC3, check out HC3's website, or pick up a Green Guide.

Now, zero-waste events are another animal entirely. The aim is to have as little waste as possible. We all love going to events in Summit County, especially during the summer when the weather is beautiful. Who doesn't enjoy hanging out with friends enjoying good food and beer with blue skies, the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop and the quaking aspen fluttering in the breeze? Yet, when you have many people eating and drinking in one place, there is waste to contend with. High Country Conservation Center is typically on hand at zero-waste tents to educate the vendors and participants as to how to properly dispose of their waste. Material streams that are contaminated go straight to the landfill. Volunteers who monitor tents help reduce contamination leading to an average of about 45 percent of the waste from the event being diverted from the landfill.

Now, if you have never heard of the word commodities and recycling in the same sentence, you're missing out! (Just kidding). We live in a free-market economy. That means recycling must be somewhat profitable. So, when our recyclables go to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) at the landfill, they are sorted and sold by the ton. There are MRFs all over the country, and they all sell their recyclables this way. The more profitable the MRF, the more likely people can continue recycling. The prices of these commodities are always changing, so sometimes things change as far as what is accepted and what is not. Composting adds a whole new level of confusion to the mix.

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Compost is actually the luscious, nutrient-rich dirt we all love to put on our gardens and lawns. Our compost facility at the landfill has some of the highest quality compost in the nation. To keep it that way, manufactured compostables have now been removed from our facility because the corn and sugar-cane plastics are simply not breaking down. Who wants tiny pieces of plastic in their garden? I don't! So, currently they are only taking food scraps.

Nonetheless, at our upcoming zero-waste event — the Colorado BBQ Challenge — we will be composting manufactured compostables, including paper plates. We are not doing this to torture you Pat, I promise. To increase our diversion rate at this event, the town of Frisco has agreed to pay for the hauling and tipping fee of the compost to A1 Organics, a compost facility in Denver. They have the machinery available to accept manufactured compostables. I won't bore you with the details of what this machinery does, but, suffice it to say, it's really cool technology.

As far as recycling at the event, the following will be accepted: #1 through #7 plastics, aluminum (not aluminum foil), office paper (napkins and paper plates will go into compost), glass (must be separate from other recyclables) and cardboard.

If you really want to stay in the loop, consider volunteering at one of HC3's zero-waste events this summer. You will be trained on waste diversion and can then assist others to becoming better stewards of the environment. I would also recommend taking a tour of the Summit County landfill. HC3 facilitates tours periodically, so feel free to give us a call, and we can try and include you on the next tour. If you're at the event and still confused, look for someone in a zero-waste shirt to assist you!

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 eartha@highcountryconservation.org.