Recycling

A row of dumpsters awaits recycled materials at the Waste Management-operated recycling center in Basalt. The popular facility will be closing at the end of January due to rising costs and the decision by Pitkin County to withdraw its share of the funding required to keep the center open.

Editor’s note: This story initially ran in the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, our sister paper covering the midvalley. For more, visit rfweeklyjournal.com.

Free recycling gained a temporary reprieve from its Mid-Valley death sentence last week with the announcement that Waste Management’s recycling center near Willits would remain open through January. However, the one-month stay of execution offers scant hope for the future of recycling locally and hints at deeper issues underlying the way the Valley – and, indeed, the world – manages its waste.

The temporary deal struck between WM and the Town of Basalt will allow the recycling center to stay open another month at the current rate. That rate, $60,000 per year, was split in 2019 between Basalt and Pitkin County, with each chipping in $30,000, but Pitkin County announced last year that it would no longer contribute any money to the program, leaving Basalt on the hook for the full amount.

To complicate matters, WM told the town that the cost of operating the center will double (or more) in 2020, bringing it to at least $120,000. The rate increase was due to a drop in the price of recycled materials caused, in part, by the U.S.’s strained trade relationship with China. WM agreed to hold off raising the price for January but couldn’t commit to anything further.

The decision leaves Basalt unwilling and unable to pay for the center by itself, and though the town has had talks with Eagle County, which has expressed a willingness to help, after January recycling in the Mid-Valley will be of the curbside-pickup variety only. Curbside service is available to everyone in Pitkin County and almost everyone in the Eagle County portion of the Valley, but it comes at a price that many folks aren’t willing to pay.

That means a lot of materials currently being recycled may end up in landfills. It’s the wrong fate and something that Basalt council member Bill Infante called “an environmental crime,” but there is already some debate as to how much of what is ostensibly being recycled ends up as regular trash to begin with.

“What we’re trying to figure out is, of the recyclables that are out there, how many of them are getting landfilled anyway?” said Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney. “I think there’s a question about that. There’s a question about the impact from trucking these recyclables and what kind of carbon footprint we’re creating just to get them to a recycling center, which exists in Denver.”

The good news is that once most materials reach Denver, they typically do get recycled. According to Mark Hoblitzell, a business services coordinator with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, “Glass in Colorado almost all goes to Rocky Mountain Bottling in Denver and then on to Miller Coors in Golden and is back on the shelf as a bottle in 30 days. Almost all metal stays domestic and is getting recycled at regional plants. Clear/translucent plastic milk jugs have domestic markets and typically end up being hand pulled from lines and shipped to become synthetic wood decking (such as Trex). Corrugated cardboard typically has markets as long as it’s not contaminated by the grease in pizza boxes.”

Those are arguments in favor of recycling, but having recently declared a “climate emergency” and given itself the mandate of being as green as possible, Basalt must figure out the most cost-efficient, environmentally friendly solution to a problem that defies easy answers. One of the most important things, all agree, is figuring out ways to get people to reduce their use of materials in general, whether they can be recycled or not, and to compost what waste they can.

“There are a lot of programs that are starting to come out that I think have a great local impact,” said Mahoney, “which includes things like composting, as one waste diversion tactic, and looking at keeping bad stuff out of the landfill, like batteries and paints and things like that. The other really important thing is being able to measure what these outcomes are, and that’s something that we’ve been looking at for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately.”

It’ll be a difficult task to get everyone on board and paying closer attention to their own actions, but it’s one that the Basalt Green Team has made one of its top priorities for the year and hopes to kickstart with more public outreach and education aimed at local residents – even including those who are spearheading the town’s efforts.

“We’re all learning, myself included,” said Mahoney, “that when you’re the end user of a plastic cup and you just put it in the recycle bin and think, ‘OK, I’m done. I’ve done the responsible thing,’ that may not be what it appears. So reducing the use of those types of products and reusing containers or plastic bags – or avoiding their use – all that can certainly help.”

Although an end goal of zero emissions and zero waste is probably unrealistic in the foreseeable future, a concerted effort by everyone in the Mid-Valley could at least move the needle in that direction. Unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding Basalt’s recycling program threatens to set back that effort unless and until the town can figure out some other way of providing large-scale free recycling.

The town plans to have more talks with Eagle County about recycling in the near future, but given the costs and carbon footprint involved, it’s unlikely at this stage to expect those talks to lead to a commutation of the recycling center’s demise.

“The only real answer right now seems to be curbside pickup,” said Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, “but there is no good solution.”