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Coffee cups wreak havoc on Breckenridge recycling rates

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

By Summit Daily staff writer Eli Pace

People’s affinity for caffeine is hampering Breckenridge’s recycling efforts, as a recent waste audit revealed that coffee cups, of all things, are contaminating public recycling bins more frequently than any other waste item.

In late October, town staff audited a series of on-street recycling and trash receptacles to better understand what’s going where and the challenges it poses for recycling and waste management in public spaces.

Four different locations were targeted to measure both recycling contamination and recycling potential — or the amount of trash that’s going into the recycling bins and the amount of recyclable materials that are landing in the trashcans.

For the most part, the town’s trashcans are getting used properly with few recyclable materials making their way into the brown receptacles. The green recycling bins, however, are a different story.

As much as 50 percent of the town’s recycling is being contaminated, according to the audit. While contaminated recycling puts extra financial burdens on the town, it also leads to materials that otherwise could be recycled getting scrapped.

“It’s really important to get this contamination under control so our recyclables are being recycled,” said Breckenridge sustainability coordinator Jessie Burley.

Beyond the high contamination rate, the audit also showed that coffee cups are “the most problematic” source of contamination in the town’s on-street recycling bins, even as Breckenridge seeks to raise its recycling rates, according to the report.

That revelation has led Breckenridge town staff to consider a follow-up audit after they’re done installing new signage on the recycling bins.

The new signs are going up on the town’s 150 recycling and trash bins on Main Street and throughout Breckenridge. The signs identify commonly recycled items like clean paper, metal cans and plastic bottles while highlighting some of the things that people might think can be recycled but actually cannot.

“The idea is that people will recognize the color-coded signing and recycle right,” Burely said, adding that anytime a load of recycling is over 30 percent contamination, it’s not cost-effective to do anything else with the load other than trash it.

While coffee cups can be recycled by some companies, the processing facility the town contracts with does not have that capability, Burley explained, adding that the same goes for soiled food containers, which can’t be recycled for some of the same and for different reasons.

This includes not only coffee cups but pizza sleeves and boxes, ice cream bowls and other food containers. Burley said that the company can’t take these items, in part, because it can’t separate the polyurethane lining that’s put on many of these containers to prevent the food from making them soggy.

The town’s new signs were created in a partnership with Recycle Across America, which has produced similar signage across the country, Burley said. Town staff hope that by piggybacking the national recycling campaign, Breckenridge’s new trash and recycling signs will run consistent with what people might see in other places across the country.

Beyond the new signs, town staff has also proposed forming a work group comprised of the owners and managers at local coffee shops and cafés to talk about educating their customers about coffee cups and recycling to see if that can help reduce the high levels of contamination.

The audit did not look at potential composting opportunities, as town staff’s report explains that discarded food was a relatively small portion of the overall waste and recycling stream in the Main Street bins.

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