Eagle County recycling center faces revenue threats
Stick with dual-stream recycling or convert to single stream?
That is the question at Eagle County’s material recovery center (MRF) these days.
For now, the commissioners are sticking with dual-stream recycling but they are watching the town of Vail closely to see what it will do, because that municipality carries a lot of recycling weight that might start going to a single-stream facility in Denver, depending on the outcome of an ordinance that is being drafted.
Vail Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Kristen Bertuglia said the goal of the proposed ordinance is to make recycling mandatory.
“If we’re going to mandate it, we want to make it easy and convenient for residents, and single stream is one way to do that,” she said. “What we’re after is to keep as much material as possible out of the landfill. We’ve been collaborating on this with the county and others, and at this point we’re a little bit stuck, because we also want to support local programs like the Eagle County MRF.”
Less material going to the Eagle County MRF means less money for that facility.
On Monday, Eagle County Director of Solid Waste and Recycling Ken Whitehead briefed commissioners about the fiscal bump in the road ahead for the MRF.
“There have been several threats to the MRF’s revenue in the last two years,” he said. “We’ve been monitoring that to figure out what we can do to mitigate it.”
A dual-stream MRF collects paper products separately from commingle products, such as glass, plastic and aluminum, which results in cleaner materials that are sold at better prices on the market. A single-stream facility offers convenience but less of the collected material is actually recycled because it is not as pure or clean.
“The MRF gets top dollar from the mills and has more outlets for the material because of the lack of contamination from our dual stream products,” read Whitehead’s report.
Eagle County built its dual-stream MRF in 2010 with the intention to boost “real recycling rates.” The facility is expensive to run, however. It has been able to operate in the black, but just barely, thanks to cost-savings from things like labor from county jail inmates.
Besides the possibility that Vail passes an ordinance that points the town toward single-stream recycling, some other factors threatening the Eagle County MRF revenue include:
Trash haulers switching to single-stream and shipping to Denver, citing increased demand for single-stream collection;
Pitkin County currently sends all its recyclables to the Eagle County MRF but might privatize its recycling operation and contract with a hauler that only collects single-stream, thus bypassing Eagle County’s plant;
China has just instituted controls on recyclables coming into the country, which means that a primary outlet for plastics #3-7 has been cut off. Eagle County has a temporary outlet stateside, but it is likely not permanent. Fortunately, plastics #3-7 represent only 1 percent of Eagle County’s flow, or about $1,000 per year in revenue.
Whitehead presented a fiscal scenario in which the Eagle County MRF has a 75 percent reduction in material coming in.
“In that case, we would be right at the break-even point, and it’s unlikely we would have that big of a reduction,” he said. “It would cost $2 million to $3 million to convert our facility to single stream, so we would lose more money going that direction and then it’s not a break-even facility at that point.”
Basically, if Vail decides to go single-stream, the county MRF will be able to absorb the revenue loss and not go into the red, Whitehead said. However, Eagle County commissioners intend to do all they can to persuade Vail to stay on board the dual-stream program.
“A convenience issue for their guests is the least of our worries,” said Commissioner Sara Fisher, pointing out that commercial demand such as restaurants and hotels is part of the call for single-stream.
Whitehead said Vail represents about 5 percent of the MRF’s volume.
“We’d like them to stay dual-stream for several reasons, one of which is to support the local MRF,” he said.
The commissioners said they would like to meet with Vail representatives next week before the town considers passing the ordinance.
“We want to keep talking with the county,” Bertuglia said. “This is definitely a collaborative effort. One option is that we mandate recycling but leave it up to the residents to decide which program they want to use.”
That’s what the commissioners worry about – that people won’t see the “bigger picture,” as Fisher said, and will opt for the convenience of single-stream recycling.
Vail has the potential to nudge its residents one way or the other and, in the meantime, the county will be lobbying the town to support its dual-stream program.
“We’ll have a hard time persuading Vail to stay dual stream,” Whitehead told commissioners. “It’s a valid argument.”