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Separating recycling can be a drag

Matt Scherr

We have a small condo in Vail and are trying to encourage more recycling, but notice that separation is still required. Is Eagle County planning any upgrades to reduce the need to separate?-RichUm, a bit.

I suspect, Rich, that your question is driven by experience in a large city in which all recyclables – paper, glass, metal, plastic – are tossed together in one bin for pickup. This is called “single stream” recycling and will not be the case in our sparsely populated piece of the world until rising water drives Los Angelinos to the hills.We’ll improve from where we are but we will not likely see the holy grail of single stream. The reasons for this, though, may give you some insight into the recycling biz.Firstly, a number of large cities practice single stream recycling. “Streams” in the waste world aren’t the crisp, clear waters that flow through Vail. They are distinct categories of waste that flow into landfills, back to industrial processes or even back to the earth (e.g. compost).Each stream can generally be subdivided (rivulets?). The recycling stream, for example, comprises glass, plastic, paper, metal, etc. “Single stream” refers to a collection process in which you can chuck everything but organics into one bin – glass, plastic, paper, metal, etc. However, they must still go to their own separate burial grounds. This means they must be separated again.Seems silly to create more work, no? But in allowing more contamination of material and losing value on every ton of material, you get heaps more material. When you make it easy for users, participation goes Everest, baby.As I said before, you’ll only find this in big cities because the extra processing requires great-and-terrible-machines-that-do-magic, or lots and lots of mere humans. Either way, this requires lots and lots of money.

Our community, of course, has lots and lots of money, but if we used it for recycling we couldn’t bury I-70. Life is full of choices.Now, we could collect our recyclables all together and ship it to Denver, where such magic now happens. But one of the downsides of this method is value. Because it costs more to separate the stuff, the stuff is worth less. It would still cost our little community a lot more per ton to recycle. It works for Denver because they, remember, get heaps more material (and don’t have to ship it 100 miles).Well, you ask, shouldn’t we be willing to pay more to recycle? Well, what self-respecting tree hugger would say no? Still, recycling can and should be an effective, efficient business proposition. After all, it is tremendous and unnecessary inefficiency in our economic systems that got us into this resource depletion problem anyway. How would it look if the clean-up solution were adding to the very problem it’s there to clean up?The good news is that there is still some mixing in our future. We have just gotten the go-ahead to allow phone books in with newspapers (good timing, eh?). We expect to be mixing newspaper, office paper and magazines at our drop-off sites soon. We also hope to add plastics numbered 4, 5 & 7 to the 1’s and 2’s we currently accept. And we hope to allow paperboard (cereal boxes, six-pack holders, etc.) along with cardboard.Remember, that is only at the drop-off sites. Private haulers are not associated with drop-off operations. They may be following suit, however, as the county is considering adding a transfer station which would allow for consolidation of all recycling collection in the valley. That creates more efficiency and reduces net cost of recycling for everyone. Yeah!Keep doing what you’re doing, Rich. Without the recycling volumes our community has now, it would be difficult to make improvements that will lead to even greater volumes in the near future.



Supportively,TerraTerra Mater is the resident know-it-all at the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability (eaglevalleyalliance.org). If you have a question about local recycling, sustainability or other such issues, e-mail Terra at askterra@eaglevalleyalliance.org.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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