Where does your waste go on Vail Mountain? A lot of places, actually
Vail Mountain gives a tour of its waste system at the Mountain Towns 2030 summit
VAIL — A critical piece of Vail Mountain’s Commitment to Zero lays several stories beneath the Eagle Bahn Gondola and The Arrabelle in Lionshead.
Since 2017, when Vail Resorts launched its Commitment to Zero, the company has invested approximately $370,000 in “purpose-built” infrastructure beneath these structures and on the mountain to transport, sort and ultimately divert waste from the landfill.
Overall, these investments have resulted in a 57% reduction of the waste that Vail Mountain sends to the landfill, according to John Plack, the senior communications manager for Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek.
Waste reduction falls within one of three pillars that comprise the company’s Commitment to Zero.
“That includes zero net emissions by 2030 with a 100% renewable goal, a zero waste to landfill goal — that is not a net goal, that is a zero waste to landfill goal — and a zero net operating impact to forest and habitat,” said John-Ryan Lockman, a senior manager of sustainability at Vail Resorts, on a tour of the mountain’s waste facility on Wednesday, Oct. 18.
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The tour was part of the Mountain Towns 2030 summit, with Vail Mountain leading a group of attendees through the lifecycle of the resort’s waste — including food waste and hard-to-recycle items.
Starting at the source
While Wednesday’s tour didn’t make it to the top of Vail Mountain, the resort’s waste diversion program truly starts on the mountain at its food and beverage outlets.
“We really made it a strategy at all of the resorts across the enterprise to remove (customer-facing) trash cans,” Lockman said. “We built waste sorting stations, which are well-signed and staffed, so that our guests can drop off their tray, we’ll pick it up for them and we will do it all on their behalf so that everything gets placed in the appropriate bin. By doing that we’re able to reduce the contamination of composting and implement hard-to-recycle programs.”
At these stations, several types of waste are separated. This includes commingle recycles, cardboard recycling, landfill waste, compost, snack wrappers, nitrate gloves and soft plastics.
The sorting and separating of waste has been a “key to success” in the program,” Lockman said.
Waste guidelines — what you can and can’t compost or recycle — differ in communities across the world and throughout Colorado, said Jake Lehew, the Eagle County sustainability manager for Vail Resorts. So, in addition to lowering contamination, this method of sorting also makes it easier for the resort to communicate with its guests, many of whom come from outside of the U.S., speaking different languages and being used to different waste practices.
Once waste is sorted at a restaurant it makes its way down the same way the food goes up: the Eagle Bahn Gondola.
“This is a two-of-a-kind gondola with a one-of-a-kind freight system,” said Kate Schifani, the director of mountain operations at Vail Mountain. “Its sister gondola is in Switzerland, it doesn’t have a cool freight system.”
The freight system consists of five freight cars — which have their own rail which allows for the cars to be loaded and unloaded without disputing the passenger loading on the gondola — and makes five to seven round trips a day. The cars haul up products for the restaurant and haul back waste.
“This gondola does a lot of the heavy lifting for us,” Schifani said, adding that it “does a ton of work that my snow cat team doesn’t have to do.”
Before the construction of the freight system, the resort relied on snow cats to take products up, down and all around the mountain. Which, Schifani noted, is no small feat: “It’s a half-hour cat ride from here to Eagle’s Nest, in good conditions and part of that is very steep — if you’ve skied Simba, that’s part of our cat route.”
While the mountain still uses a snow cat to transport from Eagle Bahn across the resort, it now only needs one “slightly bigger snow cat that has maybe twice the capacity” to do that job, Schifani said.
“This freight system helps reduce about 2,000 pounds of cat hours a season for us,” she said, adding that this also makes it a win for the resort’s carbon emissions.
A new life
Once waste is taken off the gondola, it makes its way below the ground, where the presorted waste begins to make its way to its next life.
Much of Vail Resorts’ waste diversion work began with a 2017 audit of its waste, where employees went “digging through the trash,” Lockman said. From there, the resort identified certain hard-to-recycle items that made up a large portion of its waste stream and other items that would make sense to divert from the landfill.
The three main “hard to recycle” items that Vail Mountain staff identified that are now separated from other waste are soft plastics, snack wrappers and nitrile gloves.
For snack wrappers, Vail Resorts has a program that Lockman said is 100% underwritten by PepsiCo, which is also the exclusive beverage partner across all its resorts. The wrappers are sent from the mountain to TerraCycle, which transforms the material into furniture for the resorts — namely Adirondack chairs and tables. The material has also been used to create some terrain park features — so far a wall ride at Breckenridge and a feature at Park City Mountain Resort. This program was started in 2020, and since then, it has diverted 2,240 pounds (or around 280,000 wrappers), Plack reported.
Similarly, the resort takes soft plastics (think plastic shopping bags) not only from the mountain but also from the Vail Resorts-owned retail locations in the villages, and sends it to Trex, where it’s transformed into a wood alternative. In partnership with its retail division, Vail Resorts has diverted 19,620 pounds of soft plastics since starting this in 2019, Plack reported.
Lockman commented that this component “has been the biggest win for our teams here at the resort and at the local recycling site.”
“This stuff ends up everywhere,” he added. “Typically, in the communities that we live in, people put this stuff in the recycling and it clogs up the pre-sort lines at the MRF’s (materials recovery facility), there’s just soft plastics everywhere. So once we started doing this, we realized our recycling was cleaner and less contaminated.”
Vail Resorts buys its blue nitrile gloves from Kimberly-Clark, which has its own “RightCycle” program. Through this program, because the resort purchases its gloves from the company, Kimberly-Clark pays for the used gloves to be shipped back where they are upcycled into wood-alternative material as well. This started in 2021, and has resulted in the diversion of 6,920 pounds of globes, Plack noted.
Next, the tour went to its composting operation, which gets a quality check before being sent to the Vail Honeywagon facility in Wolcott.
“The ability to scale up has been the win of our compost program,” Lehew said, adding that in the first season (2017-2018), the resort composted 6.8 tons. In the most recent 2022-2023 ski season, it composted 223 tons.
Since that first season, the total diversion from the landfill has included 797 tons of food waste and organic materials for the mountain, Plack reported.
Plus, in the last two years, Vail Mountain has also found a use for the end compost product from Wolcott.
“We started using our own generated compost to regrow vegetation on our mountain,” Schifani said. “A year ago, we did about 50 tons of compost, this year, we did about 300 (tons) … The grass is very happy.”
However, even with all this diversion, there’s still a lot of waste. Lockman commented that Vail Resorts has “done everything we possible can” to work with its brand partners and vendors to reduce waste from the get-go.
With the example of soft plastics and other packaging material, this has included having the manufacturer of its rental helmets remove individual packaging so it’s sent in a large box with no packaging: “It’s okay if there’s a little scratch on them,” Lockman commented. He added that Burton has done a similar thing when shipping its snowboards for the rental fleet, now sending them in a single large box (rather than individual boxes) with no foam and no other packaging.
“Influencing” these vendors, Lockman said has “really been a big part of what we do.”
Throughout the facility, the mountain has sought to create the infrastructure that it says is “purpose-built” to make its waste diversion easier and more efficient. This includes the custom waste sorting stations on the mountain, its freight cars well as custom-built tools like a tipper (which can tip bins that can weigh up to a thousand pounds into a dumpster), custom compactors (which it uses for landfill waste and dual-stream recycling) and more.
The investment of around $370,000 has gone toward this facility and these items, which Plack said are “intentionally designed with long-term goals in mind.”
And with this facility as an example, the ultimate goal is to share this across all of Vail Resorts-owned properties.
“As we operate in 41 resorts, we really want to kind of pilot and get these systems going at certain resorts and then expand that across our enterprise as well. So then we can ramp up enterprise-wide as well as with the Mountain Collaborative (for Climate Action,” Lockman said.