Steamboat Springs While Skylar Hughes competed for elbowroom with the empty detergent bottles, soup cans and cereal boxes that crowded the cardboard box he sat in Thursday afternoon, his classmates learned how one 10-year-old boy's trash could become everyone's treasure.
The students of the North Routt Charter School eventually rescued their classmate from the trash that partially engulfed him by placing all the recyclable items into appropriate recycling bins.
The aluminum cans and newspapers, cardboard boxes and plastic containers that had been tossed in the makeshift Millner landfill five minutes ago were suddenly viewed as valuable resources that could be recycled and used again.
It's a simple concept but one that Yampa Valley Recycles, a local organization dedicated to educating the public about recycling, wants to share in elementary school classrooms throughout Routt County.
"We really feel that getting kids involved through the schools is the way to get the adults involved," Barbara Hughes, Yampa Valley Chairman, said. "When people, regardless of their age, learn how easy recycling is, they'll think, 'Hey, I can do this, too.'"
Hughes said she understands the challenge her group faces in educating a community aware of the merits of recycling but unaware of their access to it.
Their biggest challenge, however, may be debunking a common perception that recycling is a simple issue.
"Recycling is anything but a simple issue," Bob Peterson, an environmental engineer in Steamboat Springs and YPR volunteer, said.
In 1998 Peterson produced a comprehensive study of generated waste and recycling in the Yampa Valley that revealed that only 4.3 percent of potential recyclables were recycled.
Additional assessments in 1999 and 2000 showed the recycling rate climbed just one percent, and today it hovers around 6 percent.
Even if everyone in Routt and Moffat counties recycled all recyclable materials, Peterson said, it would only amount to 22 percent, because 78 percent of waste in the Yampa Valley cannot be recycled.
This means the solution to keeping additional waste out of the landfills is not as simple, he said, as everyone feeling good about doing their part to keep their milk jugs and soda cans away from the trash can.
"Once people put their recyclables in the bin, it's usually out of sight, out of mind," Peterson said. "But it doesn't work that way."
Much of the waste that cannot be recycled includes construction debris and wood, packaging, food and yard waste.
These items will continue to take up space at area landfills until people have some motivation to recycle them, Peterson said.
Construction companies have no financial incentive to recycle their building materials, Steve Faulkner, a project manager for Dobell Contracting Company, Inc., said.
"There's no reason out there right now for us to look for ways to reuse it," he said. "We have no choice but to throw it all away."
Faulkner said an average custom home generates about 160 cubic yards of debris, or enough trash to fill five 30-yard dumpsters.
No one wants to take a chance on paying to recycle material that won't get many takers the second time around, he said.
He suggested that much of the trash volume could be minimized if the amount of packaging was reduced.
"So much of what we use comes all wrapped up," Faulkner said. "You get a bag of insulation or grout, and you throw the packaging away. Tile comes on pallets, and you throw the pallets away. It's a big waste."
The city of Steamboat Springs passed its first recycling ordinance in 1990, requiring its garbage service to provide recycling for its residential customers.
Recycling is still voluntary for residents, who can get curbside recycling if they purchase recycling bins from Waste Management and ask to be added to the route.
Waste Management also offers commingled recycling for curbside pickups to minimize some of the inconvenience of trying to separate plastic and glass from tin or steel cans and aluminum.
People who live in condominiums do not have curbside recycling and must separate and drop off their recyclables at Waste Management, although one Yampa Valley Recycles volunteer has begun a pilot program to bring recycling to his condominium complex, Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord said.
DuBord works closely with Yampa Valley Recycles to improve public awareness about recycling opportunities in the city.
"Some of our frustration is that there are so many people new to town that don't know about recycling facilities," she said. "We are trying to change that."
Yampa Valley Recycles is working with downtown businesses to offer recycling for downtown pedestrians.
Some business owners balk at inviting more clutter to their storefronts, DuBord said, so Yampa Valley Recycles volunteers are seeking ways to beautify the downtown with recycling receptacles that do not clutter storefronts.
"No matter how we do it, we've got to give people carrying around that empty water bottle a place to put it instead of a garbage can," she said.
Despite the city's and private organizations' push to increase recycling across the board, recycling will still remain a personal matter, DuBord said.
"People do it because they want to," she said. "Not because they're forced to or reasoned with or pleaded to."
Steamboat Springs' ability to keep a broader range of recyclable materials from the landfill will always be limited by its size and financial means, management site director Jeff Green said.
Commingled plastic, tin and aluminum goes to Grand Junction, newspaper and corrugated cardboard goes to Arizona, and glass goes to Cornell Resources to be ground up and used as a base for new roads.
"We're just a recovery facility that takes potential recyclables and ships it away," Green said. "We don't have the capacity to do it ourselves."
The Yampa Valley's success with recycling will continue to depend on the market for recycled goods, he added.
"Recycled material is a commodity," Green said. "You can't really bank on it. The demand for it goes up, and it goes down."
Because Waste Management costumers don't pay for recycling, it's a service that may or may not pay for itself, he said.
"Realistically, it doesn't pay," Green said. "But we do it because it's the right thing to do."
The future of recycling in the Yampa Valley depends on the tendency of everyone to do not what is convenient, but what is best.
"We're not fighting for lifestyle changes, we're just asking that people recycle instead of throwing everything away," Hughes said.
And when they opt for the recycling bin, Green said he hopes people will keep in mind that the simple issue of recycling does not end when the Waste Management truck drives away.
"People just want it to go away," he said. "But it's not that easy. It doesn't always pay for itself."
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