Summit County raises recycling fees as Chinese government clamps down on industry
A lot of folks have gotten accustomed to not worrying about where their trash or recyclables go, even here in the mountains with our space and budget constraints. But garbage and recycling is dirty business, and someone somewhere has to do it. That business is getting more expensive and, unfortunately, it’s going to start costing us consumers a little more, as both the SCRAP landfill and Timberline Disposal are raising fees for disposal and processing.
The fee hikes are purportedly responses to a rapidly changing industry, as well as significant global developments in the recycling trade. China, which at one point imported nearly half of the world’s recyclables to process into raw materials, has clamped down on recyclable commodities it imports for environmental and economic reasons — most significantly, China no longer accepts certain kinds of plastic and mixed paper.
Those Chinese governmental actions — known as Operation Green Fence and National Sword — have put a huge crunch on recycling operations across the planet, which had for years taken advantage of China’s willingness to take recyclables, regardless of contamination levels. But China’s government has taken a hard line on contaminated waste, which is much more expensive to process and has decided not to be the world’s dumping ground any longer.
Despite being at altitude, those downstream impacts are catching up to us in Summit County. SCRAP has already raised its solid waste processing rates incrementally from $35 to $55 a ton, according to the recycling facility’s solid waste director, Aaron Byrne.
What’s more, the new developments have completely flipped the economics of recycling, nationwide.
“The recyclable commodity prices have tanked,” said Summit County public works director Tom Gosiorowski. “We used to sell recyclables, but now we have to pay to have those commodities hauled out.”
Scott Eden, president of Mountain Waste & Recycling, which owns Timberline Disposal, said that a separate but similar issue is the looming price hikes for disposal — namely the changing environmental services industry.
“The industry is evolving and changing,” Eden said. “We have to pay more for labor, gas, health care for employees and improved health and safety measures.”
Byrne pointed out that trash disposal is still in the top five most dangerous jobs in the country, and there aren’t a lot of people who grow up wanting to be “trash-men,” meaning there is a labor and skill shortage. Labor shortages mean needing to offer more competitive wages and benefits.
“All of that costs more money, and while we haven’t raised fees before, we are forced to now because of the basic economics,” Eden said.
Those basic economics include the fact that despite major efforts to educate the public about proper recycling and disposal, Summit still only diverts about 20 percent of its recyclable or reusable material from the landfill. That’s a lot more product that needs disposing, processing and hauling away.
There’s also the issue of different places having different recycling needs that make recyclable processing more complicated and expensive. Summit County does not have the ability to recycle glass, which needs to be hauled down to Denver and its two glass recycling facilities. Single-stream recycling gets complicated when people from places like Denver assume glass is recyclable, disposing it into a single-stream can. That has the potential of contaminating the entire recyclable load, making it worthless.
While Summit’s diversion rate is slightly higher than the statewide diversion rate of about 19 percent, it’s still lagging behind towns like Aspen, which has a diversion rate of 27 percent as of last year. The national diversion rate is about 34 percent. For a mountain community with little land to spare and a need to maintain a pristine, clean environment, Summit needs to do a lot better, officials say.
“There needs to be a state and nationwide cultural shift on how seriously we take recycling,” Gosiorowski said. “We need to use less, and recycle and reuse more.”