Doing more with less
Eagle Valley Enterprise
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – 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 per 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.”
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 agency to do the work, which entails sorting recyclables. In September, inmates replaced four of the temp workers after the county commissioners suggested the idea.
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 ultimate goal of the facility is to conserve resources and 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 recycle 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 participating in 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. “In most areas, the trash hauler will pick up recyclables curbside for free – i.e., the cost of recycling is already imbedded in the cost to pick up garbage.”
The MRF is a big key toward the goal of conserving space and resources, and the jail trustees are a big key to keeping 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.