County weighs future of recycling facility, business

Derek Franz

People from Pitkin, Garfield and Summit counties packed into the Eagle County Commissioner work session last week to voice opinions about whether Eagle County should pay $2 million to $6 million to convert its dual-stream recycling facility to single stream.

For now, Eagle County Commissioners are swayed to stay the course with the dual-stream operation.

Dual-stream recycling means that a customer has to differentiate between two bins of materials, such as bottles going with bottles and paper going with paper. The result is that the materials are cleaner, more likely to actually be recycled and they fetch higher prices on the market.

On the other hand, a single-stream operation is more convenient because a customer puts all recyclables into one bin. That means a customer is more likely to participate in a recycling program.

Eagle County’s dual-stream material recovery facility (MRF) is the only one between Denver and Grand Junction but there is currently an increasing demand for single-stream recycling and the county might lose business from the town of Vail and Pitkin County in the near future.

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For the last several months, Vail has been working on an ordinance to make the town more environmentally friendly. One aspect of the ordinance might make recycling mandatory. Either way, the town definitely wants to increase the amount of material going into the recycling bin — or bins. If Vail makes recycling mandatory, there’s a chance it will switch to single-stream recycling to make it more customer friendly.

“Vail Town Council hasn’t decided yet,” said Vail Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Kristen Bertuglia. “They will have a work session in September, possibly Sept. 3.”

Ken Whitehead, Eagle County Director of Solid Waste and Recycling, said it will cost between $2 million and $6 million dollars to convert the county MRF to single-stream. His recommendation to Eagle County Commissioners is to keep the facility as it is.

“As it is now, our MRF is barely in the black – it’s a break-even facility that is paid for by tipping fees at the landfill,” he said. “That goes away if we switch. Our analysis yielded a $250,000 annual deficit if we go single stream.”

Whitehead said the current MRF can still break even with a 75 percent reduction of imported material.

Aaron Byrne, director of Summit County Solid Waste and Recycling, said his facility switched to single stream years ago to increase recycling rates and now the county regrets it.

“We had diversion goals and weren’t getting the participation (in recycling) we wanted, so we went to single stream,” he said. “Now we’re looking at going back to dual stream because the residual contamination rate is so high, about 30 to 50 percent. It’s very hard to back track.”

Meanwhile, three companies that haul trash and recycling in Eagle County are also part of the picture. One hauler takes loads to its own single-stream facility on the Front Range, and another hauler is probably going to switch to single-stream collection, which means those loads will also be diverted to the Front Range. The third hauler collects single stream, sorts it and delivers it to the dual-stream MRF.

“The market will decide what comes to our facility,” Whitehead said. “Customers and haulers love single stream because it’s one box you’re dealing with instead of two, but MRF operators hate single stream.”

Commissioner Sara Fisher said the market is “adapting to laziness.”

“We don’t accept laziness from anyone else for anything else,” she said. “Why can’t we raise our expectations for this as well? Let’s clean and sort our recyclables so there are fewer trucks going to Denver and more material actually being recycled. Let’s add an educational component to this.”

While there is no question that converting the Eagle County MRF would result in a deficit where there currently is none, the debate remains if single-stream recycling is the way of the future.

“Times change, people change, markets change,” Whitehead said. “In this case, it’s a policy decision and if you (commissioners) decide you want to convert to single stream, we’ll do that.”

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