Opinion | Bruce Butler: Trash talk
I have previously written that I am glad to live in a place where some residents still care enough to set aside a few hours annually to clean up trash. All you need to do is drive across Denver and out Pena Boulevard to Denver International Airport to see what it looks like when people give up. Trash is everywhere! It is embarrassing this mess is many visitors’ first introduction to Colorado — though the trash along Interstate 70 in Ten Mile Canyon may be our top local embarrassment. What are the odds that the Colorado Department of Transportation will get the trash along the beaver ponds near Copper Mountain cleaned up before spring runoff floats all that garbage into the ponds and down the Tenmile Creek into Dillon Reservoir?
Summit County takes its trash seriously. Our landfill is arguably the most scenic “resource allocation park” in the world. Voters have taxed themselves several times to add recycling options, including household electronics and mattresses. We pay some of the highest tipping (dumping) fees in Colorado. We have huge piles of compost steaming all winter long. I am an avid recycler, yet I realize the county requires a steady inflow of nonrecyclable trash to subsidize the costs of its landfill and recycling operations.
Roughly six years ago, the county government and all the towns, except Silverthorne, joined together to pass “flow control,” which mandated all trash haulers in Summit County dump the trash they collected in our landfill. The stated reason for mandating this was to make recycling more readily available and to bank money for the landfill’s eventual decommissioning, but the real reason was to cover the landfill’s high operating costs. At the time, there were two larger haulers and several smaller trash companies operating in the county. One of the two larger companies determined it was less expensive to haul trash to landfills on the Front Range. County officials feared the revenue loss at the landfill, so they teamed up with most of the towns to pass flow control.
Following implementation of flow control, the company that was going to export Summit County’s trash sold the company to new ownership, the other smaller trash companies sold or closed their operations, and all Summit County residents paid more for trash removal. Waste diversion percentages changed very little, especially because the real key to increased waste diversion is finding ways for condominiums and homeowners associations, with common trash facilities, to increase their recycling collection rates and reduce their cross-contamination.
There are few things more scary than government on a self-righteous mission. Six years later, Breckenridge and Frisco are implementing “pay-as-you-throw” trash pricing, starting Oct. 1, and the Summit Board of County Commissioners are debating how to implement pay-as-you-throw in unincorporated Summit County. This scheme charges customers more for having a 96-gallon garbage can (standard issue today) and less for having a 64- or 32-gallon garbage can. In theory, this incentivizes residential customers to produce less waste, makes recycling more convenient, and, therefore, extends the life of the landfill.
The problem is pay-as-you-throw is a heavy-handed solution in search of a problem. Summit County residents can already contract for curbside recycling and biweekly trash collection if they produce less waste. Does it really help the environment if my 32-gallon garbage can must be collected every week, as opposed to my 96-gallon (bear-proof) garbage can every two weeks? What this really amounts to is trash container virtue signaling. Under pay-as-you-throw, the out-of-pocket costs for trash services must increase to pay for the presumed fewer tons of trash collected. As a result, the county commissioners have derailed over how to offer and manage rebates to offset increased trash costs for lower income residents.
For all the extra cost, I suspect a lot of household trash is going to be surreptitiously dumped into commercial and common area dumpsters around the county. All this over a “problem” for which the private market already offers solutions!
The countywide clean-up day is Saturday, May 20. I hope to see all the proponents of pay-as-you-throw out cleaning up trash this year. If you cannot attend on the official day, please take a trash bag with you on your next dog walk and pick up trash in your neighborhood. This will improve our environment!
Bruce Butler's column "Common Sense Conversations" publishes biweekly on Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Butler is a former mayor and council member in Silverthorne, where he has lived for 20 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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