Getting to know your trash is a great first step to learning about sustainability
Take a free tour of the waste processing and disposal sites in Eagle County this Climate Action Week
As part of the Vail Daily’s commitment to become certified as an Actively Green company, members of our Green Team recently took a tour of Eagle County’s recycling, landfill, composting and hazardous waste facilities in Wolcott, led by Walking Mountains Science Center.
Walking Mountains offers free two-hour tours for community members once every few months, and provides private tours upon request. The next Community Tour is scheduled for April 26, and registration is now open online at WalkingMountains.org.
As Vail Daily staff members work towards becoming more conscious of our waste disposal and diversion opportunities in the office, we found that it was important to understand the “why” behind sorting our trash. The term that is most often used with garbage — “throw it away” — implies that there is some mythical “away” that our trash disappears to, when in reality much of it is piling up in a landfill just a few miles away.
Our tour of the Eagle County waste sorting and processing facilities in Wolcott gave us a heightened understanding of the true stakes behind the words “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and we hope that in sharing what we have learned we will help inspire other community members to get to know and take ownership of their own trash output.
Stop 1: Household Hazardous Waste Facility
We met our guide, Nina Waysdorf, at the first stop of the tour: the county’s Household Hazardous Waste facility. Waysdorf is the sustainability programs manager at Walking Mountains, where she oversees the organization’s waste reduction and diversion initiatives.
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“I think that waste is a really good gateway for sustainability and personal climate action,” Waysdorf said. “Climate change can seem really big or overwhelming at times, but waste is tangible. Everyone has trash, and it has to go somewhere, and that somewhere can be more sustainable.”
The HHW facility accepts and sorts waste types that require special processes to dispose of safely. This includes anything that is flammable, poisonous, or otherwise harmful to a human being or natural environment. Common HHW products include fertilizers and insecticides, paint products, bleach and ammonia-based cleaners, automotive fluids and batteries, among others.
Waysdorf explained that it is important to separate hazardous waste products, because if they are thrown in with the regular trash they are automatically heading for the landfill.
“These are a lot of chemicals — things that can react, contaminate our groundwater, etc. so we do not want to let that happen,” Waysdorf said.
Waysdorf said it is nearly impossible to sort hazardous waste out of a trash deposit unless the items are very large and easy to extract. In most cases, once disposed of improperly at the outset, these items will sit, forever untreated, in a landfill.
“That is a challenge,” Waysdorf said. “With smaller items, if you put it in a trash bag, there are a lot of health and safety reasons why nobody’s rummaging through your trash. We’re trying to let people know that it’s free for residents to dispose of the stuff here. Like — pretty please bring it here, and don’t put it in the landfill.”
County residents can drop off up to 20 hazardous waste items at a time for free at the Wolcott location, where they will then be sorted and shipped to respective processing facilities in other areas of the country.
In addition to accepting hazardous waste, the HHW facility accepts electronic devices, also known as “e-waste”. The 2013 “Electronic Recycling Jobs Act” prohibits the disposal of electronic devices in Colorado landfills and requires that they be recycled. Residents can drop off their e-waste at the HHW facility for a small fee of 20 cents per pound to offset the cost of recycling.
This Earth Day, April 22, Eagle County is waving the electronic waste fee from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Proof of residency must be provided at the time of drop off.
The HHW also has a redistribution wall where they stock materials that have been dropped off but still have some use left in them, such as paints and cleaning materials. All Eagle County residents can drive up to the hazardous waste facility, browse the shelves, and take what they want for free, helping to reduce the amount of hazardous waste that ends up in landfills or needs to be processed.
Stop 2: Landfill
The second stop on the tour was a drive to the Eagle County landfill. Eagle County has already filled up one landfill, which was used between 1967-1990, and is currently onto its second. The current active landfill, located in Wolcott, has a footprint of about 50 acres, and takes all of the trash collected in Eagle County.
Waysdorf said that it is a common misconception that items decompose in landfills. In fact, landfills are designed to keep all elements required for decomposition out of the contents.
“It’s essentially a dry tomb,” Waysdorf said. “The goal is to lock out all oxygen and moisture so that things don’t decompose, because there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t want to decompose that ends up in a trash can and that is also what’s preventing things like groundwater contamination.”
Fresh snowfall prevented us from seeing the contents of the landfill, but stopping at an overlook, the size was still staggering. Walking along the edge of the excavated land gave a similar feeling to hiking along the edge of a canyon, though with the knowledge that layers of garbage would bring the ground closer and closer to where we stood each year.
The county estimates that there are about 100 years of use left for the current landfill. Once full, it gets covered up, and a new one is constructed. A used landfill then becomes a permanent fixture in our environment, holding unchanging garbage that has piled up over decades.
“Once it goes into the landfill, it’s not coming out,” Waysdorf said. “Nothing happens to that trash, it doesn’t decompose, it’s just there. So we want to use that resource wisely.”
We, as residents, are able to expand the lifetime of our landfill dramatically by reducing our consumption of single-use items, reusing items, and properly disposing of recyclable materials. With a little extra consideration on the front end, we can postpone the necessity for building additional landfills in our community and filling more of our valley with mummified trash.
Stop 3: Materials Recovery Facility
The final stop on the tour is the Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF. Opened in 2010, this center sorts and ships recycled goods to facilities that can reintroduce them into the market.
The Wolcott facility only accepts dual-stream recycling, meaning that items must be pre-sorted by the resident to separate paper/cardboard products and commingled containers (plastic, glass and metal).
There are only two towns in Eagle County that currently use dual stream recycling — Minturn and Eagle — so the MRF currently processes recycling from those towns and the seven free drop sites located around the county. All other towns in Eagle County are using single stream recycling, which gets shipped to facilities in Denver for processing.
The recycling tour took us into the inner workings of the machines and manpower that turn our trash into marketable recycled materials. Walking up a small flight of stairs into a big blue machine, we entered the first stage of the sorting process, which, remarkably, is done by hand. Someone is employed to watch recycled trash pass by on a conveyor belt and pull out obvious contaminants or objects that could damage the parts of the machine the trash is entering into.
With lightning speed, the MRF employee was ripping open plastic bags to empty the contents and scooping out any non-recyclable objects that might have been misorted by the original disposer.
“Plastic bags are the number one contaminate in any recycling system,” Waysdorf said. “The main problem is that they are really flimsy and they get caught in the machinery and it can shut the whole system down.”
The items that make it through the first checkpoint then go through various mechanized sorting processes: a magnetized strip gathers all of the metal and aluminum, a glass crusher breaks bottles and jars into small pieces, a machine uses puffs of air to blow lighter plastics into a separate bin than the heavier plastics.
The final step of the sorting process is also done by hand, with employees sorting the heavier plastics into numbered categories. Anything that has not been sorted by the end of the MRF process heads to the landfill.
Once sorted, the different materials are grouped into blocks that are shipped out to recycling centers that can sell them. It’s important to note that making it through the MRF does not mean that an item has been recycled. It is not until a recycled good is purchased and re-enters the market as a new product that it has truly been recycled. Having a local recovery facility primarily increases transportation efficiency, by pre-sorting the trash from the recycled goods and densely packaging the contents.
Properly sorting your recycling is a big step toward giving an item a second life, and if you are choosing to use disposable containers, recycling will substantially extend the lifetime of a material. It is a good way to buy time and decrease the necessity for new single-use plastics to be produced, but Waysdorf emphasized that reducing the use of single-use materials entirely should be the first priority.
“Unfortunately, a lot of things are not recyclable,” Waysdorf said. “These are the core things, which leaves a lot out, so that’s when reducing becomes really important. Reduction is always more sustainable. Recycling markets are really volatile, especially right now, so it’s not as sustainable to rely on recycling.”
Bonus Stop: Vail Honeywagon Compost Facility
After exploring the three destinations for each type of waste, Waysdorf added an uplifting tour of the newest addition to the Eagle County waste processing family: the Vail Honeywagon Compost Facility in Wolcott. The compost facility will also be included in the April 26 community tour date.
When organic waste, such as food or yard waste, goes into a landfill, it decomposes without access to oxygen, which produces potent greenhouse gasses such as methane. Composting diverts organic waste away from landfills to a separate process, where it can decompose naturally, transforming into rich soil amendment that can then be put back into the local environment to fuel new growth and nourishment.
The Wolcott compost facility opened in 2018, and now diverts over 550 tons of organic waste from the landfill each year. The large piles of compost are stored outside, where they are carefully measured for metrics like temperature, moisture, and bulk density, and regularly turned to ensure that material on the outside of the pile is incorporated into the middle where the temperatures are highest. Over the course of three to six months, the piles of distinct organic matter transform into one big pile of fertile compost, which local residents and commercial enterprises are can purchase and use in their own gardening.
There are seven membership-only dropsites in Eagle County where community members can pay a monthly fee to get access to the Vail Honeywagon Compost Facility. There are also a number of local education events that teach people how to compost in their own backyards and other plots of land. More information about compost options can be found at WalkingMountains.org/composting.
Take a tour
After seeing first-hand each possible endpoint for the items that we “throw away” in Eagle County, I can attest that each site conjures a very different feeling.
The landfill has a sense of permanence, of forced acceptance that it is the end of the road for so many materials. The MRF facility gave a feeling of autonomy, that we as consumers have the ability to keep materials from this fate. Ending on a high note, the compost facility actively generated excitement about the positive impacts that sustainable waste disposal can generate for our community and our environment.
Ultimately, all four facilities leave the tourist with a great sense of responsibility, for it is the decisions made by each individual person that determine how we leave our world for future generations. The April 26 free recycling tour is one of a number of activities taking place this Climate Action Week in celebration of Earth Day 2022. For more information, visit WalkingMountains.org.
What: Free Recycling Tour led by Walking Mountains Science Center
Where: Eagle County landfill at Wolcott
When: Tuesday, April 26, 9 a.m. — 11 a.m.
More information: WalkingMountains.org