Challenges of being green: Recycling in Routt County isn’t as easy and free as some might think | SteamboatToday.com

Challenges of being green: Recycling in Routt County isn’t as easy and free as some might think





Workers sort through single-stream recycling at Waste Management's Franklin Street materials recovery facility.

Matt Stensland

It is hard being green in Routt County, where recyclables are transported long distances and shards of glass devalue the sorted materials.

Local recycling leaders are taking a close look at the current program, and they have said changes are needed.

"I would say it's certainly a work in progress," Routt County Director of Environmental Health Mike Zopf said. "The economics of recycling in rural Colorado … is a problem."

BY THE NUMBERS

50 tons of recyclables at Milner Landfill

100 tons of recyclables at Ace's High Services

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200 tons of recyclables at Twin Enviro Services

3,300 tons of recyclables at Waste Management

Projections for 2015

24,853 population of Routt County

5,894 tons of recyclables at 45 percent diversion rate

Projections for 2025

30,894 population of Routt County

8,182 tons of recyclables at 45 percent diversion rate

— LBA Associates Routt County Recycling Study

Emilie Rogers, administrator for Yampa Valley Recycles, knows those recycling program challenges well.

"I would say there is definitely room for improvement," Rogers said. "I wouldn't say it's broken. Our recycling numbers show that people are recycling."

In 2013, Routt County diverted about 13 percent of its waste to recycling, according to a report prepared for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council by LBA Associates. About 3,650 tons of material were hauled away for recycling.

Of the three waste haulers in Routt County, Waste Management handled the most with 3,300 tons of recyclables in 2013.

"In the big picture, it's working," said Kevin Richards, district manager with Waste Management. "It's diverting material from the landfill."

As a company, Waste Management is the largest recycler in the nation. They handled 12 million tons of recyclables in 2012. That same year, the company's recycling operations lost $130 million.

"If you look at what's happened to us in recycling over the last two years, it has not been a pretty story," Waste Management CEO David Steiner told CNBC in 2013.

Recycling continues to be a money-losing operation not only for the largest waste haulers but also the small haulers like Twin Enviro Services and Ace's High Services in Routt County.

The haul to Denver

After being collected curbside in Steamboat Springs, 3,300 tons of recyclables were baled at the Waste Management facility on the west side of the city in 2013. From there, bales of single-stream recyclables were trucked 160 miles to Franklin Street in Denver to Waste Management's materials recovery facility, or MRF.

Outside the building sits a mountain of recyclables. Waste Management uses single-stream recycling, meaning customers can put all their recyclables in one container, and they do not need to sort them. When Waste Management went to single stream, recycling increased 40 percent because of the convenience. That was encouraging news, but as Steiner said in the 2013 interview, there were "unintended consequences."

"We didn't educate the consumers to say let's tell you what's recyclable and what's not recyclable," Steiner said. "So when you say, 'Throw it all into one bin,' you end up throwing some things in there that are not recyclable. It wears down our equipment. It makes our processing costs go up by 15 or 20 percent, and all of the sudden recycling gets unprofitable, so we've got to do a better job of educating the consumer to say, 'Here's what goes in, here's what doesn't go in.'"

Sorting single-stream

On a warm December day, trucks steadily arrived at the Franklin Street MRF loaded with recyclables from the city and county of Denver. After being weighed, the trucks dumped their loads and were weighed again on the way out of the facility.

Companies who use the Waste Management facility pay to dump their recyclables, similar to how they would pay to dump trash at a landfill.

In 2013, Steve Weinland, owner of Aces High Services, trucked his 100 tons of single-stream recycling from Steamboat to Alpine Waste, which also operates a MRF in Denver. Weinland said he has been charged as much as $36 per ton to dump recycling at the facility.

In addition to the trucks dumping recyclables at the Franklin Street MRF, large bales of compacted single-stream recycling fill part of the yard. The source of the bales quickly can be determined by pulling a newspaper out of the bale. There were a few from Laramie, Wyoming, 125 miles away. Others were from Summit County, and one was from Steamboat.

In an area called the tipping floor, a loader picks up single-stream materials and dumps them into a hopper in the building. The materials then are dropped onto the beginning of more than

2 1/2 miles of conveyor belts. Fiber materials are separated out with gravity and screens, and from there, it is "a constant process of sorting," said Lara H. Rezzarday, communications specialist with Waste Management.

A line of workers then picks out any trash, like plastic bags.

Sorting is very labor-intensive. Waste Management currently operates the MRF six days each week. They currently are running two 10-hour shifts daily. During each shift, about 50 people are working at the MRF.

Rezzarday said it can cost between $30 million and $40 million to build a MRF the size of the one on Franklin Street.

The MRF is very dusty, and workers wear helmets, goggles and their choice of mask.

"It's a hard job to do," Rezzarday said.

There is some technology used to help sort the material. A magnet grabs the steel cans. Another sort of magnet, called an Eddie current separator, pulls out the aluminum cans.

Further up the conveyor line, an optical scanner takes a picture of each item, and a computer tells the machine to send small blasts of air at the desired item being sorted, like plastic bottles.

Between all these separating stations, workers pull out items that cannot be recycled. If dangerous items like syringes are found, the line is stopped.

In one area, streams of tape from cassettes and videos hang below the equipment. This is another one of the materials that cannot be recycled, and it gets tangled in the equipment at the MRF.

Each year, the facility processes about 132,000 tons of recyclables. About 10 percent of the materials that the MRF processes is disposed of as trash.

At the end of the line, scraps of trash and all the broken glass remain on the conveyor belt. When it comes to recycling, sorting shards of glass is a challenge.

The glass at the Franklin Street MRF was used as cover material at landfills but currently is being used at two Denver-area landfills for engineering drains.

"Utilizing glass in this manner preserves natural resources, such as processed gravel and virgin sands that would have been mined out of rock quarries," Rezzarday said.

Ready for market

Outside the building, sorted materials are baled in cubes and stacked in the yard, waiting to be loaded onto train cars that are pulled up next to the building.

Plastic bottles eventually can be recycled into fiber fill that can be used for things like ski jackets. Hard plastics can be used in composite construction materials. Cardboard can be turned into cereal boxes. Cartons will live another life as tissue paper. Newspaper will go to various mills, primarily in the Northwest, to be recycled into paper.

Aluminum cans are desirable and can be recycled and back on store shelves in 60 days, Rezzarday said.

The market for most of these materials has been weak in recent years, helping to contribute to the financial losses experienced by Waste Management. The company will continue being in the recycling business, but continued losses will make it difficult for the company to invest in its recycling infrastructure in the future.

"Recycling is a good thing," Steiner said in a blog post. "Waste Management is committed to it because it makes good environmental and business sense — it's a service our customers demand."

Recycling is not free

In 1998, the city of Steamboat Springs adopted an ordinance that required waste haulers to offer recycling to residents living in a single-family home or duplex.

The ordinance stated the haulers could not "charge a fee for such service other than their fee for general waste collection services."

This does not mean recycling is free. Steve Weinland, owner of Aces High Services, figures it costs his company $380 every three to four weeks to truck a load of single-stream recyclables to Denver. That includes fuel, labor and what he is charged per ton of single-stream recyclables.

Weinland takes his cardboard to Eagle County, and he figures it costs $180 per trip, but the facility does not charge him to dump the cardboard.

"We have a geographic problem up here, so I don't think there is a whole lot we can do to mitigate that cost," Weinland said.

Additional recycling costs for waste haulers include the extra routes their trucks run to pick up recycling.

While waste haulers are not allowed to charge a fee for recycling, the cost is bundled into what residents pay to have their trash hauled away.

"We have to build that in if we are going to make a profit," Weinland said.

The customers would be paying about $20 each month if there was no curbside recycling. Currently, Weinland's customers in Steamboat each pay $31 per month for recycling and trash pick-up.

Even though they are inadvertently paying for recycling, Weinland said only about half of his customers put out recycling on a monthly basis.

"We'll give the public what they want," he said.

The cost of recycling is more clear for businesses and multi-family complexes that choose to recycle. A 28-unit complex last year paid $2,000 to Waste Management to have a dumpster emptied every other week.

Government funding

In 1998, the Routt County Board of Commissioners instituted a fee at the Twin Enviro landfill to help local recycling efforts. It essentially is a tax that companies and users pay each time trash is dumped in the landfill. The fund is managed by the Routt County Department of Environmental Health.

In 2013, the fee generated about $30,000 and paid the $27,400 it cost in 2013 to provide recycling drop-off sites in Yampa, Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs.

Hayden residents have access to free recycling drop-off as part of the town's waste contract with Waste Management.

The "Green Machine" drop-off location in Steamboat was discontinued in September. The county could no longer pay for the site, which was getting overused and abused, with people leaving bags of recycling next to the overflowing Dumpsters.

"You can't just keep adding Green Machines," said Emilie Rogers, with Yampa Valley Recycles. "The volume was too much."

The Green Machine in Steamboat also was not in line with city code and could not continue to operate in the Safeway parking lot.

As part of an ongoing study of recycling in Routt County, Rogers said they are exploring new economical ways to offer recycling to people who do not have curbside service.

The state of recycling

In November, the Steamboat community heard the results of the first phase of a recycling study commissioned by the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council to gauge what the community's recycling needs were.

By looking at the tons of waste brought to the Milner landfill and comparing that to the tons of materials recycled, consultant Laurie Batchelder Adams found Routt County's diversion rate in 2013 was 13 percent, and another 11 percent was being composted.

The study showed the demand for recycling would continue to increase, and by 2025, Routt County had the potential to send only 32 percent of its waste to the landfill.

As a state, Colorado's recycling rate on average is less than 20 percent.

Mike Zopf, with Routt County Environmental Health, said measuring the carbon footprint of the recyclables being trucked to Denver is beyond the abilities of his office, but he pointed out one current inefficiency.

"I think it's probably inefficient that we have three haulers that are all hauling waste out of the county," Zopf said.

Batchelder Adams said that in order for Routt County to have a more efficient and sustainable recycling program, it needed to increase the tons of materials as well as the quality of materials.

"The biggest thing for our region in order to have a successful program, we need cooperation from surrounding counties," Rogers said. "Routt County alone doesn't have that volume."

How such a program would be funded is not yet known.

The next part of the recycling study will help recycling leaders decide how they should move forward.

Data will be collected from other communities and their procedures, and volume and waste haulers will be analyzed.

How to get greener

In the short-term, Rogers said she thinks the community can make changes related to glass, and a drop-off recycling facility could be established.

In the long-term, Routt County hopes to learn from other communities and do what has proven to be successful.

In Teton County, Wyoming, trash is hauled 100 miles and carries a pricey landfill fee of $110 per ton. In Milner, the fee is $75 per ton for non-compacted trash, and there is no immediate concern about the landfill running out of space.

Aside from the environment, Teton County had a strong incentive to recycle because, according to Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling, it cost much less to recycle at a price of about $45 per ton.

The community has achieved a 34 percent waste diversion rate and residents have free access to seven drop-off recycling sites. Curb-side service is available for a fee.

The program is multi-stream, meaning residents sort the materials. The materials are worth more because they are not contaminated. The county bales the materials and markets them directly to buyers.

According to Batchelder Adams, the revenues from the materials cover 75 percent of the recycling program's costs.

Teton County has set a goal of having a diversion rate of 60 percent by 2030.

"If we can get the volume from surrounding communities, it's possible to get the material directly to market and have a successful program," Rogers said.

At Routt County's Twin Enviro landfill in Milner, there is a desire to become a recycling hub for the region.

Twin Enviro CEO Marlin Mullet said that the company's customers sort their materials. This means they avoid sending all their materials to a sorting facility in Denver, and the materials are worth more.

Metals can be sent to Axis Steel in Craig and recycled. Plastics still are hauled to Denver. Mullet said paper and cardboard currently are kept at the landfill and mixed with their compost. Glass is crushed and incorporated into drainage layers at the landfill.

In 2013, Twin Enviro took in 200 tons of recyclables from its customers, putting it second behind Waste Management in recycling in Routt County.

Twin Enviro is in the process of converting its customers to single-stream recycling. Mullet said they are applying for grant funds from Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity to build a mini-MRF at the landfill.

At another Twin Enviro operation in Fremont County, a mini-MRF is being built at a cost of about $400,000. It will employ about eight people who will sort the materials that Twin Enviro will then sell.

If a mini-MRF is built in Milner, Twin Enviro would be able to accept materials from the region, Mullet said.

"That's where we see it going," he said.

Mullet said they are proceeding with plans despite the economics of recycling.

"It doesn't have much of an economic benefit for us right now," Mullet said. "That's where communities are going, so we have to make it work."

Glass: The enemy of single-stream recycling

If single-stream recycling has an enemy, it is glass.

"The infamous heavy, hard to move, hard to recycle," Yampa Valley Sustainability Council board member Garrett Smith said about glass at the beginning of a meeting to discuss glass with local waste haulers.

Additionally, broken glass in single-stream recycling contaminates the other materials, making them less valuable to buyers.

Currently, glass is making a money-losing venture even more unprofitable, and all three waste haulers in Routt County adamantly support getting glass out of single-stream recycling.

Instead, they want to establish a community drop-off site for glass.

Hard to recycle

In a 2013 interview with CNBC, Waste Management CEO David Steiner said organic materials and glass are the two biggest challenges they face as recyclers.

Shards of glass eat up conveyor belts, balers and other equipment used at materials recovery facilities, or MRFs.

At the Waste Management MRF in Denver, the glass brought in through single-stream recycling is not sorted and is commonly sent to landfills to be used as cover and for engineering landfill drains.

"The business model is: You give us the valuable material, we separate and sell it, and we give you some money back," Steiner said. "You can't do that with glass. Consumers need to realize you have to pay to recycle glass."

Glass contaminates the other materials in single-stream recycling, and in a blog post, Steiner discussed how buyers have become more particular about the materials they want.

"Right now, markets are responding to a need for cleaner, reusable material," Steiner said. "The Chinese are no longer taking everything they receive, as they once did. New domestic outlets for recycled materials are not emerging at a clip fast enough to fill the gap."

In 2014, Ace's High in Steamboat sent about 57 tons of recycling to Alpine Waste and Recycling in Denver. Brent Hildebrand, Alpine Waste's vice president of recycling, said they actually recycle the glass. It is labor intensive and loses money.

He has employees on a conveyor belt whose only job is to sort glass by hand.

"We know it's the right thing to do," Hildebrand said. "I don't think other people do it like we do."

He said the glass is hauled to Rocky Mountain Bottle Co. in Wheatridge, where it is made into new bottles.

A 'losing situation'

Like other Colorado cities, the city of Steamboat mandates that waste haulers offer to recycle glass.

According to city ordinance, the city manager can exclude certain materials from recycling if there is "unreasonable hardship."

"The city of Steamboat Springs makes us pick it up and haul it all the way to Denver," said Steve Weinland, owner of Aces High Services. "It's a losing situation where the environment is concerned."

Steve Johnson, of Waste Management in Steamboat Springs, estimated some of their single-stream loads are 60 percent glass, in terms of weight.

Kevin Richards, district manager for Waste Management, said it does not make sense to ship the glass to Denver if there is no market for it, and if it just is going to be used as cover materials at landfills.

Summit County's solution

As they community leaders continue to examine recycling needs in Routt County, they look to what other communities are doing with glass.

On Jan. 1, Summit County officially removed glass from its single-stream recycling. The High Country Conservation Center stated the county's single-stream recycling materials would become more valuable because they are not contaminated with glass.

Residents in Summit now can take their glass to drop-off centers across the county. Their glass also is taken to Rocky Mountain Bottle Co., where it is processed into new bottles.

"The best practice for recycling is to source separate and bring it to the county drop centers, where you can be confident that the materials are being recycled for their greatest value." the Conservation Center wrote in the Summit Daily newspaper.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland

BY THE NUMBERS

50 tons of recyclables at Milner Landfill

100 tons of recyclables at Ace’s High Services

200 tons of recyclables at Twin Enviro Services

3,300 tons of recyclables at Waste Management

Projections for 2015

24,853 population of Routt County

5,894 tons of recyclables at 45 percent diversion rate

Projections for 2025

30,894 population of Routt County

8,182 tons of recyclables at 45 percent diversion rate

— LBA Associates Routt County Recycling Study

Glass: The enemy of single-stream recycling

If single-stream recycling has an enemy, it is glass.

“The infamous heavy, hard to move, hard to recycle,” Yampa Valley Sustainability Council board member Garrett Smith said about glass at the beginning of a meeting to discuss glass with local waste haulers.

Additionally, broken glass in single-stream recycling contaminates the other materials, making them less valuable to buyers.

Currently, glass is making a money-losing venture even more unprofitable, and all three waste haulers in Routt County adamantly support getting glass out of single-stream recycling.

Instead, they want to establish a community drop-off site for glass.

Hard to recycle

In a 2013 interview with CNBC, Waste Management CEO David Steiner said organic materials and glass are the two biggest challenges they face as recyclers.

Shards of glass eat up conveyor belts, balers and other equipment used at materials recovery facilities, or MRFs.

At the Waste Management MRF in Denver, the glass brought in through single-stream recycling is not sorted and is commonly sent to landfills to be used as cover and for engineering landfill drains.

“The business model is: You give us the valuable material, we separate and sell it, and we give you some money back,” Steiner said. “You can’t do that with glass. Consumers need to realize you have to pay to recycle glass.”

Glass contaminates the other materials in single-stream recycling, and in a blog post, Steiner discussed how buyers have become more particular about the materials they want.

“Right now, markets are responding to a need for cleaner, reusable material,” Steiner said. “The Chinese are no longer taking everything they receive, as they once did. New domestic outlets for recycled materials are not emerging at a clip fast enough to fill the gap.”

In 2014, Ace’s High in Steamboat sent about 57 tons of recycling to Alpine Waste and Recycling in Denver. Brent Hildebrand, Alpine Waste’s vice president of recycling, said they actually recycle the glass. It is labor intensive and loses money.

He has employees on a conveyor belt whose only job is to sort glass by hand.

“We know it’s the right thing to do,” Hildebrand said. “I don’t think other people do it like we do.”

He said the glass is hauled to Rocky Mountain Bottle Co. in Wheatridge, where it is made into new bottles.

A ‘losing situation’

Like other Colorado cities, the city of Steamboat mandates that waste haulers offer to recycle glass.

According to city ordinance, the city manager can exclude certain materials from recycling if there is “unreasonable hardship.”

“The city of Steamboat Springs makes us pick it up and haul it all the way to Denver,” said Steve Weinland, owner of Aces High Services. “It’s a losing situation where the environment is concerned.”

Steve Johnson, of Waste Management in Steamboat Springs, estimated some of their single-stream loads are 60 percent glass, in terms of weight.

Kevin Richards, district manager for Waste Management, said it does not make sense to ship the glass to Denver if there is no market for it, and if it just is going to be used as cover materials at landfills.

Summit County’s solution

As they community leaders continue to examine recycling needs in Routt County, they look to what other communities are doing with glass.

On Jan. 1, Summit County officially removed glass from its single-stream recycling. The High Country Conservation Center stated the county’s single-stream recycling materials would become more valuable because they are not contaminated with glass.

Residents in Summit now can take their glass to drop-off centers across the county. Their glass also is taken to Rocky Mountain Bottle Co., where it is processed into new bottles.

“The best practice for recycling is to source separate and bring it to the county drop centers, where you can be confident that the materials are being recycled for their greatest value.” the Conservation Center wrote in the Summit Daily newspaper.