Vail Chamber: Is recycling in peril? (column) |

Vail Chamber: Is recycling in peril? (column)

Michael Staughton
Vail Chamber
Michael Staughton
Special to the Daily

Everyone supports recycling — at least I think they do. Unfortunately there is a problem.

“America’s recycling industry is in the dumps” caused by a policy shift in China, the world’s largest recyclable buyer. China, this past January, enacted an “anti-pollution program that closed its doors to loads of waste paper, metals or plastics unless they’re “99.5 percent pure.” This is not an attainable level in our single-stream recycling process. The single-stream process is 97 percent free of contaminants such as foam cups and food waste.

The contaminants are a large part of the problem.

How many of you remember when it was necessary to separate the paper, plastics, glass and metal into separate containers? On top of that, early on, it was necessary to wash bottles and cans before putting them in the bin.

“Towns and private businesses made money recycling — now they are paying fees to processing plants to take the products. I am sure all of you have read about the patch of plastic floating in the ocean.”

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The single-stream system has benefited efficiency and customers are happy with it. However, the problem is the contamination side. It seems obvious to me that items such as picnic coolers, garden hoses and broken lawn mowers are not recyclable — they are trash and go to the landfill. There are a few very important items that are not recyclable. For example, plastic bags contaminate bales of other products and tangle the machinery being used. The most common (but probably not thought about) is spilled ketchup and greasy pizza boxes. How many of us think: “This is cardboard, I can recycle this.” Unfortunately that pizza box turns “marketable material” into garbage. I have been guilty of that.

The two problems I have mentioned — the ability of recycling locations to continue to sell recycled goods and contaminated product — are very significant. The crash of the market for recyclables has caused many towns to decide if they can afford to continue to recycle or send all the plastic, bottles and cans to the landfill. Towns and private businesses made money recycling — now they are paying fees to processing plants to take the products. I am sure all of you have read about the patch of plastic floating in the ocean.

Is there a solution to the recycling problem? Some people believe there is.

To quote the executive director of Recycle Across America: “The death of recycling was completely avoidable and incredibly easily fixed.” That group advocates standardized labeling on recycling bins so everyone knows exactly what goes in and what does not. One solution that has been initiated is “oops” tags put on curbside recycling bins with improper contents and left them uncollected. My guess is that 50 percent would try to correct the problem and 50 percent would throw it away.

Is there a solution to this multifaceted problem? I believe two things can help. The first is to encourage as many people and businesses as possible to strive to recycle proper items — not contaminated. How about this idea? Let’s start it right here in Vail. We can help the recycling cause by taking one small step to be more aware of what and how to recycle.

Michael Staughton is the owner of Slope Enterprises, which operates the restaurants Los Amigos and Russell’s, both located in Vail Village. He is a board member of the Vail Chamber & Business Association. The Vail Chamber & Business Association is a business advocacy group in Vail and a communications outlet for businesses that want to have a voice in community affairs. For more information, call 970-477-0075 or email

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