recycling center

The Rio Grande Recycle Center is shown here in a file photo. The center, which is free to the public for dropping off recyclable materials, requires a six-figure annual subsidy.

The days may be numbered for a recycling drop-off center at Rio Grande Park as city leaders debate the costs, benefits and reach of environmental sustainability efforts.

Pitkin County funds the pick-up and hauling of materials dropped at the city-owned facility; since 2014, the county has paid Waste Management to haul materials to Denver, which cost $225,000 last year.

The county is going to discontinue funding that hauling contract in August as it reallocates resources toward waste diversion programs housed at the solid waste center at the Pitkin County Landfill.

Aspen City Council in a work session on Monday decided to pick up the tab to keep the hauling services running through the end of the year. Whether the city would pay for those services going forward will be decided by the fall budget planning meetings for 2020.

The business as usual scenario is no longer sustainable, said CJ Oliver, the director of the city’s environmental health department. The city manager’s office has determined that an annual subsidy of $150,000 to $300,000 to support the recycling drop-off center’s operations cannot be absorbed by the city’s general fund without reallocating resources from other priorities.

The recycle center is free to the public and well used, with between 150 and 250 trips per day. Many business use it to drop off cardboard, according to Liz Chapman of the environmental health department, while residential use is split about 50-50 between city and county homes, she said, citing anecdotal evidence. Users dropped off 1,160 tons of material at the site in 2017, accounting for 20 percent of recycling diverted that year.

That amounts to roughly 19 days’ worth of waste buried at the Pitkin County Landfill, which has a finite remaining lifespan of around 25 years. While 19 days is not insignificant, “we are measuring the extension of the lifespan of the landfill in days, not months,” Chapman said, prompting the county’s reevaluation of the six-figure subsidy.

Chapman further noted that the city overall diverts 26 percent of its waste stream into recycling. While that is better than the Colorado average of 11 percent, it is well below the 80 percent rate achieved in cities like Seattle and San Francisco where residential and commercial recycling is mandatory.

The overall recycling picture is influenced by the increased costs associated with the practice and a drop-off in the market value of recycled goods.

While costs are going up, the practice still has an environmental benefit — holding down carbon emissions and increasing the sustainability of the landfill.

That all adds up to a big conversation the city, county and community must have when it comes to environmental priorities and how to fund those priorities, elected officials and city staff members said on Monday.

While there is no long-term funding source identified, city staff have noted that it may be worth considering moving the recycle center to an area near the Marolt seasonal housing complex. That would eliminate some of the traffic delays experienced by waste haulers and free up the existing recycle center for a use more compatible with surrounding development and Rio Grande Park. However, it would likely lead to decreased usage by the public.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins expressed shock that the city was so far behind the likes of San Francisco and Seattle in recycling and said she would like to prioritize a conversation on closing the gap.

Councilman Bert Myrin noted that the $4.36 million subsidy the city would be providing to the developers of the Lift One corridor project would fund recycle center operations for a good 20 years, suggesting that would be a better use of the funds if voters reject the project at the polls next month.

Councilman Adam Frisch said the city needs to determine the best bang for its buck in pursuing environmental initiatives and implementing its climate action plan.

Mayor Steve Skadron said the information presented Monday shows that the environment is losing in the balancing act with human activity. The current discussion should be focused on laying the groundwork to alter that balance, he said.  

City staff will launch a public outreach process, scheduled to be completed in May, that will gauge community sentiment around the recycling drop-off program specifically and big picture environmental goals, which will inform the long-term funding discussion that will be had come budget time.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.

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