EAGLE COUNTY - A group of valley fourth-graders recently got an up-close look at where their trash goes and how much of it can be reused.
Teacher Debra Croff spent the week before Earth Day talking about stewardship with her fourth-grade class at the Vail Academy. Youngsters were asked to separate their trash at home and then bring all of their recyclable material to a Friday tour of the Eagle County Landfill.
"We had a lot more recyclables than we did trash," student Olivia Pyke said of her week separating recyclables from landfill fodder.
Before the kids were able to pour their bags onto the recycling center's conveyor belts, they got a quick rundown of the operation from facility manager John Berry. Berry explained what the giant machine does, how it works and where the stuff goes.
"I learned there are seven types of plastic - I thought there were only five," student Grant Fischer said.
The most valuable of those plastics, Berry said, is the "natural" plastic used in milk bottles. That plastic can be melted down, turned into pinkie-finger-sized pellets and then used for just about anything.
Colored plastics, such as bleach bottles, are more commonly used for material that's ultimately painted.
Going through the recycling facility ,the students were shown how much manual labor is involved in what's ostensibly an automated process. Prisoners from the Eagle County jail pick through much of what comes through, making sure no trash goes into the recycling areas. Another group of inmates then watches material that doesn't make it through the original sorting.
All the material ends up in several bins. Those bins are then emptied and sent to a compactor, baled and then trucked off to places as far-flung as Arizona and Indiana. Those bales are pretty big. To demonstrate, Berry had the whole class, Croff and two other adults stand on the big bale-weighing scale. The entire group weighed in at about 1,450 pounds. A bale of plastics just out of the compactor tipped the scale at 1,550 pounds.
"I was surprised that bale weighed more than us," student Ian Woodland said.
While the kids were getting a good look at the machinery, landfill manager Ken Whitehead explained how the dollars and cents work out.
Whitehead said the $5.5 million recycling facility pays its own way, thanks mostly to the inmate labor, which saves about $120,000 per year. But transportation costs still hit the bottom line. Whitehead said the recycling facility processes about 6,000 tons of material every year. If it could do 8,000 or 9,000, the recycling center would pay its transportation costs, too, and, just maybe, make a little profit.
Whitehead has been on the job for about a year, so he's inherited most of the operation. But, he said, between the recycling facility and other steps, county residents are in good shape regarding their trash.
The recycling facility keeps material out of the landfill, which is good, since it's unlikely the county will ever be able to find another site. But, Whitehead said, it's going to be generations before that's an issue, thanks to both the recycling facility and a land purchase from the Bureau of Land Management a few years ago.
"With everything that's been done, we have a 100-year landfill here," Whitehead said. "That's almost unprecedented in the country."
But the kids didn't delve much into the numbers - the machinery was impressive enough.
"It was really cool to see the process and how they recycle," Ethan Pike said.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.