Our View: The true cost of recycling


What this green-leaning ski town could use in 2014 is a doctoral candidate in environmental economics to tell us in quantifiable terms the net benefit of Steamboat Springs’ passion for recycling.

Steamboat Today editorial board — January to April 2014

  • Suzanne Schlicht, COO and publisher
  • Lisa Schlichtman, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Karl Gills, community representative
  • Will Melton, community representative

Contact the editorial board at 970-871-4221 or editor@SteamboatToday.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

Reader poll

Waste Management has begun charging non-customers $5 for recycling. What do you think about this fee?

  • Customers pay for the service along with trash, so the fee makes sense 28%
  • Recycling should be a free service 32%
  • The Green Machine should be available more days of the week to avoid this 26%
  • $5 is worth paying for the service 14%

158 total votes.

We learned this week from Waste Management and Yampa Valley Recycles that our community’s distance from the nearest materials recycling facility in Denver is making it more costly to recycle in Northwest Colorado. And now, we find ourselves wondering how long the well-intended practice in Steamboat can continue.

Sarah Jones, executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, uttered the words this week: “Recycling could go away,” in the context of remarks made in regards to the need to change public perception here that recycling is free.

The consternation about the future of recycling in Routt County was precipitated by a new $5 fee Waste Management is charging non-customers for the privilege of dropping off recycling at the company’s yard on the west side of Steamboat. It has been free to the public for years.

The phones in the newsroom began ringing last week as dedicated recyclers, stung by the new fee, asked the newspaper to investigate. While Waste Management had displayed posters in its yard announcing the change for weeks, it could have saved some of the angst with more aggressive outreach. But the issue remains.

Waste Management’s perception of recycling as a drag on its profitability is of concern to everyone who takes recycling seriously. Equally concerning is the fact that the Green Machine recycling dumpsters provided by Routt County and YVSC in the Safeway parking lot usually are overflowing by Saturday morning with another 30 hours of free recycling to go before the next pick-up.

A Denver spokeswoman for Waste Management confirmed to Steamboat Today this week her company loses money on recycling, and the extra long haul from Steamboat makes it all the more difficult to sustain.

Customers in Steamboat Springs are accustomed to seeing their bills from Waste Management increase annually, which naturally makes them wonder how unprofitable recycling could be.

So how much is Waste Management losing on recycling? Company officials sent out mixed signals in late 2013.

According to CNN Money, Waste Management made $817 million in profit in 2012 on revenues of $13.6 billion for a modest net profit of 6 percent.

A November 2013 article in “Resource Recycling” reported that despite public comments by WM CEO David Steiner saying his company was set to lose at least $100 million on its recycling operations for the year, the company’s chief of recycling, Bill Caesar, said something different. Caesar said the company’s recycling business was profitable in 2012 and was close to breaking even in 2013.

Steiner’s remarks later were explained as referring to a $100 million decline in recycling revenues from 2012 to 2013.

We think the issue of greater concern for Routt County residents is the environmental cost of recycling and whether the local effort truly provides a benefit, given its carbon footprint.

In some locations around the country recycling is undertaken to keep reusable resources out of landfills that are perilously close to being full. But in Routt County, we learned at the YVR meeting that we have 100 years of readily developable landfill capacity. So, the motivation for recycling here is to support the environment by reusing valuable natural resources.

An important question is: “To what extent are the benefits of recycling efforts in Routt County offset by the carbon-based fuels expended to get the recyclables to market?”

We suspect there’s no simple mathematical answer to that question; the fluctuating prices of resources such as cardboards and aluminum must be taken into account. And comparing our recycling carbon footprint to the value of materials recycled is also a difficult calculus.

But if recycling here really is in jeopardy, it’s a question for which we should seek an answer. Even if it takes an environmental economist and a cost benefit analysis to provide it.

We also think Waste Management’s decision to charge non-customers $5 to drop off items at its yard is a small price to pay for the service. Recycling is not free, and the new fee is reasonable and helps offset some of the company’s cost to recycle the materials.


Scott Wedel 3 years, 2 months ago

"We learned this week from Waste Management and Yampa Valley Recycles that our community’s distance from the nearest materials recycling facility in Denver is making it more costly to recycle in Northwest Colorado"

That is an outrageous lie by people that know there is a materials recovery facility at mm 2 on hwy 131 at the Eagle County landfill. It is not a Waste Management recycling facility and, as a matter of corporate policy, Waste Management only uses their recycling facilities. That doesn't mean that a closer MRF doesn't exist. It does mean that Waste Management won't use it.

So how much should the local community be forced to pay because YVSC is committed to using WM and WM insists upon hauling recycling materials to their facility in Denver?

The alternative would be YVSC/YVR collecting recycling materials in large trailers (recyclable materials are light and hauling costs are due to volume, not weight) and having the trailers hauled to the Eagle County MRF. That would be a true community recycling program.


Fred Duckels 3 years, 2 months ago

Scott You are assuming that Eagle County is eager to accept our waste, I doubt it.


mark hartless 3 years, 2 months ago

Is the proper question "what is the net benefit?" or "IS there a net benefit?"

Waste Management says they lose money on recycling. Since they clearly don't intend to lose money across the board, one needn't posses a degree in economics to surmise that their rates on their other services must make up the difference.

Is there a net benefit to recycling? Yes. It makes people feel good.


Scott Wedel 3 years, 2 months ago


The Eagle County MRF would WELCOME our recyclable materials. They sell the sorted and baled materials for a profit. It helps to have their facility built with grant money on county land and have county prisoners as a labor force. It also helps to be close to I70 and so have lower hauling costs for their processed bales.

They just don't make enough to be able to pay for recyclable materials being dropped off.

They told me they will accept recyclable materials even if the most valuable items such as aluminum cans have been siphoned off.

The basic problem locally is that YVSC/YVR have decided to commit to Waste Management and have no interest in alternatives.


Tricia Nickerson 3 years, 2 months ago

Actually Aces High Services recycles single stream and takes it to Eagle County MRF. Twin Enviro Services and Old West Sanitation collect recyclable materials curbside, sorts/separates by hand, and then hauls to Grand Junction. So there are alternatives to Waste Management.


Scott Wedel 3 years, 2 months ago

And yet an article is written having interviewed YVR and YVSC leadership that states that our only choice is WM's Denver facility.

Seems to me that Ace's High or Twin Envro could convert a long flatbed trailer into a recycling trailer with a big section for cardboard/paper and a big section for glass/plastic and a small section for aluminum cans and haul it to the Eagle County MRF after keeping the aluminum cans. That would be far more cost effective than Waste Management's Green Machine.

They could even ask for a $1 courtesy drop off fee with directions on how to make that via Paypal or whatever.


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