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Trash talk: Garbage data is an economic indicator

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WOLCOTT – In an economic sense, we are what we throw away.

“Garbage is a pretty good indicator of economic health,” said Ken Whitehead, director of Eagle County Solid Waste and Recycling. “Garbage tends to be a leading indicator.”

The proof is in the numbers. From 2007, the county has seen a 30 percent drop in total tons of new material at its landfill. Construction debris has dropped 68 percent during the same period and compacted trash – refuse collected by municipal or commercial trash haulers in garbage trucks – has dropped 23 percent.



The drop in construction debris speaks for itself. It demonstrates the slowdown in new construction as well as the drop in construction demolition. But according to Whitehead, the compacted trash drop reveals a few telling aspects of the local economy.

First, if there is less compacted trash at the landfill, there are probably fewer people in the county because less people means less trash. But it can also indicate consumer behavior.



“Thirty percent of what winds up in the landfill is packaging,” said Whitehead. “People are buying less.”

Then there are other factors, such as business and restaurant refuse, and a drop in collections there means there are fewer people shopping or eating out.

Ideally, a drop in collections means more recycling. Whitehead noted the county recently opened a new Material Recovery Facility and has encouraged residents and communities to amp up recycling efforts. But overall collections at the MRF have also shown the decreased overall trend the landfill has seen.



What is interesting about tracking trash is that the data from the landfill is available sooner than other economic indicators, according to John Lewis, Eagle County finance director.

“We don’t get unemployment or sales tax numbers for a month and a half,” said Lewis. “If you want to know how the economy is really doing, you should check out your neighbors’ trash.”

What is the county’s trash talk telling us? It seems to be saying the economic tide is leveling off, according to Whitehead.

Garbage gauge

As of the last week in December, compacted trash tonnage at the Eagle County Landfill during 2011 was within 1,000 tons of the 2010 figure. According to Whitehead, that is good economic news.

“We are seeing that the numbers are starting to stabilize,” he said. “That’s a good sign because compacted garbage is our bread and butter.”

From 2008 to 2009, compacted trash tons at the landfill dropped 13 percent and then from 2009 to 2010, the figure dropped an additional 6 percent.

“We may be seeing the bottoming out in the compacted waste, but it’s still too early to tell,” said Whitehead. “But before, we were dropping fairly quickly.”

While the compacted trash levels seem to be stabilizing, Whitehead said the construction debris numbers likely haven’t yet hit bottom.

“Construction trash was almost half of what we were getting at the landfill at one point,” he said. “I certainly cannot offer any prediction about when it will bottom out. But it hasn’t flattened out yet.”

Tracking the drop in construction trash compared to the increase in local unemployment provides some interesting food for thought. From 2008 to 2009, construction debris collections dropped 35 percent at the landfill. From 2009 to 2010, it dropped an additional 20 percent. Between 2010 and 2011, the drop is up again, in the 25 percent range.

Eagle County unemployment figures from November 2008 grew from 4.8 percent to 7.5 percent by November of 2009, a 30 percent increase. From November 2009 to November of 2010, unemployment grew from 7.5 to 10.1, a 25 percent increase. But from November 2010 to November 2011, unemployment in the county had dropped to 8.9 percent.

Budget impact

Less trash has meant less revenue for landfill operations. Revenue at the facility has dropped 25 percent, from a high of $4.3 million in 2007 to an estimated $3.2 million for 2011.

In response to the revenue drop, beginning in 2012, the Eagle County Landfill has increased its tipping fees. The cost for compacted trash has increased from $33 per ton to $39 per ton. The cost for mixed trash – loads brought to the landfill by residents rather than trash trucks – has gone from $23 per ton to $29 per ton.

“With precipitous drop in tonnage, we have lost revenues and you can only cut costs so much,” said Whitehead.

Whitehead said that the average national average charge is $46 per ton for compacted garbage, so the new county fee is still a bargain. Whitehead also noted that the landfill opted to increase rates rather than cut back hours. The landfill is open from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

And while the drop in tonnage at the facility has signaled grim economic trends for the county, it has brought one positive outcome – the life span of the current landfill module has been expanded. The area currently in use at the landfill is expected to last another five to six years and the next module should operate for another decade.

But the life span of the facility isn’t really a pressing concern. Whitehead noted the Eagle County Landfill likely has more than 100 years of storage available.

“There aren’t many landfills in the nation that can make that claim,” said Whitehead.


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