When Aspen and Pitkin County went off the rails a few years ago about plastic bags, it wasn’t unusual. Once the fever of righteousness strikes this valley, it doesn’t usually break until we’ve tried to one-up everywhere else with the passion of our concern. The plastic-grocery-bag ban instituted in 2012 may have kept thousands of bags out of our landfill, but it left room to wonder why a socially engineered solution that felt rushed and rife with contradictions—other plastic products were ignored, plastic grocery bags are easily recyclable, reusable cotton bags are far less green than people assume, and so on—was preferable to a proven approach that is widely available here: recycling.
Not long after the first Earth Day in 1970, Pitkin County began to endorse the Three R’s of reducing, reusing, and recycling. In fact, locals who were considered “characters” had been practicing all of them for years. The frugal and creative nature of many early miners and ranchers caused them to resort to things like composting and repurposing; doing so was practical, thrifty, and frequently necessary. And then there were geniuses like renowned jazz clarinetist Freddie Fischer, locally known as Fischer the Fixer, who scoured the town dump regularly to create or repair all manner of things.
Reusing has been so ingrained here that in the 1940s the first informal “recycling center” was a dirt lot at the town dump, where someone’s discarded cast-iron cookstove became another person’s wood-fired hot water heater. No one called it recycling, so it didn’t seem like a political ploy, just a natural thing to do. And for the last forty years, Aspen and Pitkin County have been at the forefront of municipal solid waste diversion in Colorado. “Compared to similarly sized towns, Aspen does fantastic with recycling,” says Jack Johnson, the public outreach and education coordinator for the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center.
Liz O’Connell, Aspen’s waste reduction and environmental health expert, notes that in spite of many challenges, in 2012 the city diverted 29 percent of its waste through recycling and 1 percent through composting, placing it at the average rate for the nation (30 percent) and well ahead of Colorado (11 percent). Unfortunately, those same rates in 2014 were 19 percent for recycling and 1.7 percent for composting. “We don’t really know why the decline [in recycling] has been happening,” O’Connell says. This should be disturbing to a community that prides itself on being at the environmental vanguard. Meanwhile, municipalities that really are at the forefront of recycling, like Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, regularly recycle 80 percent of their waste streams.
Many factors, including education and accessibility, influence the amount of recycling that people do, especially in a resort that swells from 6,000 people to 35,000 during high seasons. The city and county also grapple with issues that include eight different independent contractors providing local trash-hauling services that come with varying levels of recycling. Ultimately, a community can recycle only as much as its waste haulers allow it to, but Aspen isn’t threatening that threshold yet.
While government can run the landfills and lead the way in recycling, real success requires widespread support among the community, from individuals to businesses. Aspen being Aspen, the support tends to be there, especially when it’s trendy. But paying lip service to the cause and actually participating in solutions are different matters.
A prime example of the latter is the annual Food & Wine Classic in June. “Over twenty years ago, we started our first connection with recycling,” says Devin Padgett, the festival’s producer of special events. “It’s easy to get the efforts organized in the Aspen community.” Those include more than sixty volunteers overseeing the tri-stations that divide waste into trash, compost, and recycling; using compostable corn-based flatware and recyclable plastic and glass; and ultimately diverting 85 percent of the event’s waste, with composting ending up in local soil for on-site plantings.
Composting is a major and underutilized component of full-scale recycling. Food waste currently accounts for 40 percent of our waste stream and a large amount of landfill space. Because of its value for gardening, foodies have become active supporters of composting. Executive sous chef at the St. Regis Aspen Greg Ische observes that composting the hotel’s food scraps is a matter of caring about both food and the environment. “We pride ourselves on putting the best product on the plate, and the question is how do we continue that over years and decades,” he says. “We have to do that by providing the soil the right nutrients to grow the right product.”
Individuals tend not to be as into composting, because it can be messy and inconvenient if you don’t know what you’re doing. And, in truth, that applies to people across the board about recycling in general. The objections are numerous: it’s confusing, it’s a fraud, it’s extra work, it’s expensive, it’s not available, and so on. The even more inconvenient truth is that the costs of our dumps everywhere, including here in paradise, are compounding exponentially.
The environmental damage caused by landfills is troublesome and burgeoning. Risks of groundwater contamination include everything from highly toxic paints and electronics waste to prescription drugs that are showing up in increasing amounts in fish as well as in urban water supplies. But even the basics are a problem. “Buried trash with food creates methane gas through anaerobic processes, regardless of the care taken by officials,” Johnson points out, adding that methane is “thirty times more potent of a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.”
Equally significant is the prospect of having the expense of our waste disposal skyrocket when we have our landfills reach capacity. Increased recycling can greatly extend the lives of landfills. The projected expiration of the Pitkin County dump is only eighteen years away. After that, we’ll have to truck our trash to whoever will take it, and they can charge as much as they want, says Johnson, who notes that Jackson Hole already pays about twice as much for its waste removal as Aspen does.
It would be nice to see as much local zeal invested in recycling as in the banning of single products. The latter is easier and requires less personal responsibility, but it won’t suffice. We have to genuinely want to make things better and then step up and do it, not just cut a check and sign a petition.
Eight tips for doing it right
1. All the usual suspects (plastics nos. 1–7, aluminum cans, glass bottles, office paper, this magazine) can be recycled at the Rio Grande Recycling Center. Phonebooks, paperboard, milk and juice cartons, yard waste, and household batteries can, too.
2. A favorite argument of the anti-recycling crowd? Most recycling is thrown out anyway. The truth is that if a single truckload of recycling contains 15 percent or more contaminated and/or unrecyclable materials, it cannot be sorted at the Franklin Street Materials Recovery Facility in Denver, where human hands and, later, optical scanners remove unrecyclables as well as anything wet, dirty, broken, or otherwise impure.
3. What can contaminate a load? Scraps of food left in containers, used paper towels, plates, and cups, fast-food wrappers, broken glass, and delicate sheet glass are often assumed recyclable by the well-meaning. They aren’t. Neither are Nerf footballs, that patio set you no longer care for, or Bee Gees Greatest Hits eight-tracks.
4. So, please, empty and rinse your recyclables. Flatten them for a gold star. Some things are, unfortunately, beyond repair. Pizza boxes are not recyclable if grease has soaked through the cardboard, as the food waste has irreparably altered the structure of the once-reclaimable material.
5. The chasing arrows symbol, a petroleum-industry code, does not always mean something is recyclable. For example: Styrofoam. A list of everything that can and cannot be recycled in single stream (unsorted) and four-bin (sorted) recycling systems can be found at aspenpitkin.com.
6. Scraps, a joint composting initiative run by the City of Aspen and Pitkin County, provides metal bins free of charge to residents and commercial kitchens for food-waste collection, thanks to a $201,765 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. If you’re interested in participating, call Jack Johnson at 970-429-2885.
7. Each calendar year, every Pitkin County household is entitled to a $100 credit at the Solid Waste Center. Along with various forms of natural refuse, our landfill accepts major appliances, vehicles and their tires, household hazardous waste, and all electronics. Recycling an average television will take only $10 off your tab.
8. E-waste collection events hosted by the City of Aspen’s Environmental Health and Sustainability Department occur every spring and occasionally in the fall. The Pitkin County Solid Waste Center accepts electronic waste year-round.
May 2018 Update: While recycling and good waste practices remain critical, the Pitkin County Landfill is in the midst of an 18-24 month permitting process that could extend landfill life by 42 years, meaning it can be used until 2073.