The Eagle County Solid Waste and Recycling center is in the black - which is a rare thing for a facility that is only two years old - and it's mostly thanks to inmates from the county jail.
The center is a textbook case of doing more with less, stretching every dollar while maximizing the life of the landfill by saving space and encouraging people to recycle.
"One way to survive is to get lean and mean, and that's what we are doing here," said Ken Whitehead, director of Eagle County Solid Waste and Recycling. "The landfill is back to 2005 staffing levels - which it should be, because property values are back down to that as well - but we couldn't operate with fewer people without cutting landfill hours."
Whitehead said the four county jail "trustees," as they are called, have saved the operation $10,000 a month since they started the program in September.
"That's huge," said Eagle County Commissioner Jon Stavney. "The program is definitely a cost-saver."
The inmates benefit as well. They earn time instead of money. For each day of work, a day is deducted from their sentence. That means the taxpayers save money in incarceration costs. Each day a person is not in jail is that much less money spent to keep the person there.
"Someone with a 30-day sentence might end up serving 17 days," said Eagle County Jail Administrator Capt. Bill Kaufman. "Right now, what I'm seeing is heavier sentences, with the new DUI laws, and this program is saving taxpayers the cost of housing (the additional inmates) here."
The work-release program isn't new. Jail trustees have been working for various entities such as Eagle River Fire District, raking leaves, shoveling snow and picking up trash.
Inmates were already picking up trash at the landfill before they started working at the county's material recovery facility - the recycling center, referred to as the MRF.
"Wind blows the trash over the fences at the landfill," Whitehead said. "The only way to keep up with it is to go pick it up by hand and put it back in the landfill. It's much better to have the inmates do that mundane work instead of paying my machine operators to do it."
Before the trustees came on at the MRF, the facility paid six workers from a temporary employment agencyto do the work, which entails sorting recyclables. In September, inmates replaced four of the temp workers after the county commissioners suggested the idea.
"We had guys walking the perimeter of the landfill for litter control and the county approached us about making a deal," Kaufman said.
The temp workers started out on a monthly basis that stretched into 18 months. It wasn't an ideal situation, as Whitehead had to pay salaries for workers who weren't as productive as the inmates.
"We tended to get low-end employees from the temp service but with inmates we get the cream of the crop," he said.
The reason trustees in the work-release program usually make good employees is simple - competition and accountability.
"I imagine anyone who is in jail will want to get work release," said Bill, one of the trustees at the MRF. "It's something to do, and we benefit society and cut our time in half."
To get into the program, the trustees first have to be approved by a judge.
"There are certain criteria," Kaufman said. "They can't have holds or warrants from anywhere else. They have to be here for the one charge, and people who live in the area are usually chosen for the program because they are less likely to walk off."
Put another way, the opportunity to work is a privilege for the inmates. They have to compete for the jobs and then they have to work hard to keep them.
"Any type of screw-up, including a poor work review, results in an automatic suspension and 30 days before they can reapply," Kaufman said.
The trustees at the MRF agree it's worth it.
"It beats the alternative of sitting in a cell," an inmate named Dustin said.
Whitehead said the program also gives the inmates a chance to learn a work ethic and job skills. Working at the MRF has given Bill a new perspective as well.
"It gives me a whole different outlook," he said. "People throw away their dirty diapers and trash in the recycle and don't think about the people at the end who have to sort it. When I get out, I'm thinking about recycling in a whole new way."
The ultimate goal of the MRF is to conserve resources and make save space in the landfill so that it lasts longer. The more people recycle, the less material is deposited in the landfill.
That's a big reason why the landfill saved up the $5 million that it cost to build the MRF.
"The MRF was paid for with landfill reserves, which helped a lot for getting us into the black so soon," Whitehead said. "Whoever came before me was thinking about the future."
Although Eagle County's recycle center is covering its expenses, there is a bigger picture struggle for Whitehead. He said there is a misconception that a recycling plant pays for itself because it sells its commodities.
"What people don't realize is that we contract with a vendor to haul the commodities (recyclables) here," he said. "That costs a quarter-million dollars a year and our sales don't cover that - it has to be subsidized by the landfill."
Additionally, the commodities are selling at lower prices because there is less demand for them. For example, the county's MRF can handle up to No. 7 plastics but these days it's only able to sell up to No. 2 because of the market.
"The more people recycle and the higher commodity prices are, the more cost effective recycling is overall," Whitehead said. "With prices for recycled materials being so low, right now the MRF is in the black because of the inmate work-release program."
Whitehead said people can help by opting to pay for curbside recycling, which is offered by both of Eagle County's trash-hauling services, Waste Management and Vail Honeywagon.
"If more people did that, it would save in hauling from the county's six recycle sites, which are located in Gypsum, Eagle, Edwards, Avon, Vail and Red Cliff," he said.
The bottom line is that is costs money to recycle.
"The payoff is going to be 100 years later," Whitehead said. "The Eagle County landfill started in 1985 and there are not many landfills in the country that have a 100-year life expectancy."
The reason it is so important to keep the landfill going instead of starting a new one is simple.
"It's difficult to start a new landfill," Whitehead said.
In the meantime, the MRF is a big key toward that goal of conserving space and resources, and the jail trustees are a big key to keep it operating at a reasonable cost.
"I think the citizens will be pleased to know the county is doing its best to use its resources and save money instead of just spending it like a lot of governments do," Kaufman said.
Bags: The biggest problem workers encounter at Eagle County's recycling center is plastic bags mixed in with the recyclables. The best practice for depositing commingled recycling is to not leave them contained in a bag that will have to be opened and sorted at the plant.
Lids: Contrary to what many people say, lids left on bottles aren't much of a problem. Eagle County's material recovery facility has a "perforator" that punctures holes into plastic bottles so that air won't be trapped inside after they are bailed.
"If air is trapped inside the bottles, it expands and can break the bailing wires," said Ken Whitehead, the county's director of solid waste and recycling.
Where: There are six sites in Eagle County where recyclables are collected: Gypsum, Eagle, Edwards, Avon, Vail and Red Cliff. However, it costs the county money to haul from those sites. People who pay for curbside recycling - which is offered by both trash services in the county - save the county money on hauling and help the recycling operation.