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Recycling 101

Melanie Wong
Daily Correspondent
Vail CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – To rinse or not to rinse? What number is this plastic carton? And what does co-mingled mean, anyway?

Eagle County has had a recycling program for decades, according to Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability Executive Director Jennifer Schenk, but due to changing regulations and some misinformation, the entire process can still cause confusion.

Thanks to a brand-new materials recovery facility (commonly called a MRF) at the Wolcott landfill, Eagle County can now process more recyclable items than ever. Last year, the facility’s first year in operation, almost 6,000 tons of materials went through its conveyor belts.



Worth the hassle?

While the county’s recycling center might be pretty advanced, some residents don’t always feel that way when sorting through their bottles, containers and papers.



Eagle Vail resident Tom Nelson was at Avon’s drop-off site, hauling several bins to the site’s large dumpsters. He does this about once a week, but admits he has frustrations about the process.

“I do have curbside pickup, but they only come every other week. Also, you only get a small bin to put everything in. I have two kids and that’s not nearly often enough,” he said.

Pointing toward the variety of dumpsters, some clearly labeled, and others with less obvious signage, he said it’s confusing to figure what is accepted and what goes in which container. The county only accepts plastics labeled #1 and #2, but it’s a puzzle to figure out which plastics are which, Nelson said.



Plastics 1 and 2 are things such as milk cartons, most drink containers, squeezable bottles, shampoo bottles and laundry detergent bottles, Schenk said. The county doesn’t recycle plastics 3 through 7 because there isn’t much of a market for those materials and it’s difficult to make it financially worthwhile, she said.

Still, despite the hassle, Nelson said he’ll continue sorting his trash and making trips to the drop-off site.

“I want to be green,” he said. “I don’t just want to throw it away, and I have a feeling a lot of things around the valley end up in the landfill. It’d be nice if it were made a little easier, though.”

Others said the process is too complicated, and that their things usually don’t make it to the recycling sites.

Nancy Bailey of Avon said she avoids using plastic bags and recycles newspapers because “its easy to do,” but usually stops there.

“It’s complicated, and you have to separate it,” she said. “And there’s no sense in doing it if you’re not doing right.”

Recycling faux pas

If residents find sorting their trash complicated, imagine being on the receiving end. Jesse Masten, manager of Eagle County’s recycling facility, literally sees tons of recycling come through the conveyor belts, and he can tell you a lot about what should and shouldn’t go into the dumpsters.

The number one mistake people make is throwing in plastic bags, he said. The bags are made of a plastic film that must be recycled differently. The county’s facility doesn’t do it, but many local grocery stores collect plastic bags for recycling, he said.

Masten said there are also many of 3 through 7 plastics that make their way into the bins. Plastics such as yogurt and cottage cheese tubs, or the fruit containers that berries usually come in, are not processed by the Eagle County facility. Neither are plastic car parts, irrigation tubes or other industrial piping.

His advice is to check the labels, since most 1 and 2 plastics will have a number. Rinse lightly just to avoid smells (in most plastics, the melting process will separate the plastic from the residues), and empty the stuff in the recycling dumpsters, minus the plastic bag you might be using to store the containers, he said.

Also, cardboard must be flattened, otherwise it quickly leads to overflowing bins.

The recycling centers see a fair of amount of just plain trash, too, said Schenk.

“We’ve had people leave couches out there at the site,” she said.

Where does it go?

The county’s six drop-off sites are emptied at least once a week, sometimes more if needed, and all of it converges at the 19,000 square-foot materials recovery facility at Wolcott. The trash services, Vail Honeywagon and Waste Management, also do free curbside pick-up for single family homes (call your waste service company for more information), and those materials come to the MRF as well.

All the materials go through one of the facility’s nine conveyor belts and is “presorted,” meaning that workers pull off trash before the electronic sorting begins. The cardboard and paper are baled, or compressed and wrapped up in huge cubes. Different conveyor belts sort out the different materials – glass is swept aside, the tin and steel are caught by magnets, and an infrared light sensor catches the plastics. The last check is done by eye to double check that no trash goes out.

The plastics are then baled – each bale can weigh about 1,500 pounds – and shipped to Denver to sell and be reused. The glass is stockpiled and periodically shipped to Rocky Mountain Bottle Company in Wheat Ridge, where it is melted and remade into bottles.

“The material we’re seeing is gradually going up,” said Masten. “We’re getting out there and doing outreach and education, and we’re seeing the results of that.”


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