Eagle County mulls cost/benefit analysis of single-stream recycling

At the Eagle County Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) at the Eagle County Landfill, co-mingled recycled items have to be sorted before they can be shipped to their ultimate destinations. New Colorado producer responsibility laws will increase end markets for recycled materials.
Chris Dillmann | Vail Daily Archive

EAGLE — Eagle County has set some definitive environmental goals for 2025, but there are financial considerations related to achieving those benchmarks.

The Eagle County Landfill recycling program is a case in point.

Monday, May 7, the Eagle County Commissioners discussed a “Waste Diversion Strategies” report authored by the county’s Sustainable Communities and Solid Waste and Recycling departments. The report highlighted current operations at the county landfill, including recycling and diversion programs, as well as future expansion options. One of those options — expanding recycling at the facility to a single-stream system, where all recyclable materials are co-mingled at pick up and then sorted at a landfill operation — is projected to increase overall recycling participation, but it would also carry a $2.8 million price tag.

Goals and operations

Eagle County has set three specific climate action plan goals related to the landfill operation:

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• Divert 30 percent of landfill waste by 2030.

• Divert 30 percent of organics currently sent to the landfill by 2030.

• Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025.

In working toward those goals, the landfill has already instituted a number of programs. For example, since 2008, the county has separated and collected household hazardous waste. In 2010, the county opened its Materials Recovery Facility, a dual-stream recycling operation that collects co-mingled plastic, aluminum and glass and separated paper and cardboard. In 2013, as a result of a state ban on electronic waste in landfills, the county has also separated and collected electronic items.

County Solid Waste and Recycling Manager Jesse Masten reported that in 2016 (the last year that comprehensive figures were available), the county landfill’s operating costs were $2,385,502. But the facility’s 2016 revenues were $3,302,165. On the recycling side in 2016, expenses totalled $463,781 while revenues were just $246,794.

“Recycling does not make money, but we are fortunate that we have another facility that does,” Masten said.

The county also has seen a drop in recycling rates from a high of 26.9 percent in 2015 to 22.2 percent in 2017 and a drop in diversion rate (which includes recycling and other materials that are diverted from the landfill including wood, concrete and scrap metal) from a high of 19.6 in 2015 to 15.3 in 2017.

Masten said the county’s study estimates that conversion to a single-stream recycling system could increase the diversion rate at the landfill by nearly 10 percent. But the capital costs associated with the change would be hefty — an estimated $2.8 million for a new center.

John Gitchell, environmental manager for the county’s Sustainable Communities department, said there are other concerns about switching to a single-stream system. He noted single-stream recycling can result in materials contamination, which in turn means the destinations for recyclable material could reject shipments.

“I am not really comfortable with recommending a $3 million system with concerns about loads getting rejected,” Gitchell said.

Construction and Demolition

While they voiced reservations about the costs associated with a wholesale change from a dual-stream to a single-stream recycling operation, Masten and Gitchell also presented a lower-cost alternative to decrease the amount of materials going to the landfill — a Construction and Demolition Processing Facility.

The new operation could accept lumber, clean concrete, reinforced concrete and drywall. The capital construction costs associated with the facility are estimated at $553,000, and Masten and Gitchell believe it could increase the landfill diversion rate from 15.3 percent to 19.82 percent. Annual operating costs, which would include the addition of one full-time employee, would be an estimated $220,000, and anticipated annual revenue would be $90,000.

Its more affordable price tag is one of the reasons the county’s waste-diversion report recommends a pilot Construction and Demolition Processing Facility operation as a first step in the waste-reduction action plan. Other recommendations include a marketing and education campaign for recycling and diversion, improved infrastructure/access to recycling across the county and a cardboard disposal ban feasibility study.

“Marketing and education is a huge piece, no matter what we do,” Masten said.

Advocating for single stream

Matt Donovan, of Honeywagon Waste Services, urged the county to continue consideration of a single-stream system, arguing that it is the national norm in recycling and that the $2.8 million price tag could be cut back.

“I find it fascinating that Eagle County is thinking it doesn’t have to go the direction of the rest of the country,” Donovan said.

As for the contamination issue, Donovan said with so many single-stream operations nationwide, there must be a system in place somewhere to deal with the problem.

Donovan suggested the county rethink its building cost estimates and look to partnerships for a single-stream system.

Commissioner Jill Ryan noted that the issue is bigger than just deciding whether to stay with a dual-stream system or transition to a single-stream operation. For instance, a single-stream system might increase recycling locally and reduce the county’s landfill volume and greenhouse gas emissions, but those gains could be outweighed with higher transportation impacts.

“We have always heard that single stream was the answer for increasing the recycling rate, but it is larger than that,” Ryan said. “Are there other ways to get better recycling participation without spending $3 million?’

Ryan also noted that the landfill itself, which has an impressive 100-plus-year capacity, is one of the factors affecting local recycling efforts. She pointed to the East Coast, where landfills are rapidly filling up and cities struggle to find places to take their trash, saying in that part of the country recycling is much more prevalent.

“Enemies of recycling are lots of land and lots of space in landfills,” Ryan said. “Lots of pressure leads to recycling. We don’t have that yet.”

But the county isn’t ready to comprehensively reject the idea of a single-stream system. Instead, team members who worked on the waste-diversion report want to continue studying the option.

As Abby Musfeldt, one of the members of the county team that authored the waste diversion report, said, “All we are saying is we can affect diversion rate in ways that cost less.”

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