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Summit County waste study reveals high recycling contamination, wasted recyclables

By Summit Daily Staff Writer Deepan Dutta

FRISCO — Summit County has received the results of a waste composition study conducted this year to see what the county is throwing away and find ways to improve the county’s recycling and composting diversion rate.

That study’s report has revealed that Summit residents need to do a better job to decontaminate recyclables, and could use a better understanding of what can and can’t be recycled or composted.

Representatives from Summit County’s recycling nonprofit High Country Conservation Center were on hand at the Summit Board of County Commissioner’s regular work session Tuesday, Nov. 19. They presented findings of the waste composition study, which was administered through consultant and subcontractors.

Two municipal solid waste audits were conducted at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park this year, once in July (high season) and another in September (low season). Each audit involved a three-day hand sorting of garbage collected from around the county, with the intent of getting a representative sample from towns all across Summit.

The waste was roughly divided half and half between residential and commercial sources. The waste sorted during the two audits had a combined weight of 6,563.5 pounds.

The objective for these audits was to identify what items being thrown in the trash could have been recycled or recovered and thereby diverted from the landfill.

Additionally, single-stream recyclables were collected and sorted to understand what Summit County residents and businesses are disposing of and how much contamination was present.

A key finding from the study was how Summit County’s waste composition compared to other rural Colorado waste audits. Summit County throws out proportionately more metals, plastics and papers than other rural Colorado communities but discards a lower percentage of other organic disposables.

The most prevalent materials in Summit County trash are food waste, cardboard and compostable paper. Compostable paper is considered a contaminant in single-stream recycling as it blows away and cause litter problems.

A diversion audit found that 77.6% (low season) to 81% (high season) of materials thrown out by Summit County residents could have been diverted from the landfill through typical reuse, recycling, compost or recovery programs that are available in Summit County.

Of that percentage, 29.7% to 34.1% of items that could have been diverted were compostable, 23.44% to 25.7% of items could have been recycled, and 15.9% to 16.3% of items have specific disposal guidelines that allows them to be recovered if disposed of properly, including hazardous waste, batteries, electronics, paint, textiles and motor vehicle waste.

The single-stream recycling audit produced bad news for Summit County’s recycling rate. Of all the items thrown into single-stream recycling bins across the county, 28.2% to 29.5% of items were contaminants that can’t be recycled. That could be garbage thrown into recycling bins, recyclables that are not processed properly before being chucked into recycling, or other item that can’t be recycled yet wound up in the recycling stream.

Glass, which can’t be recycled at the landfill, was separately categorized but is also considered a contaminant. If it is included in the contaminant category, that contamination rate jumps to 37.9% in high season and 32.9% in low season, which the report considered “extremely high.”

That basically means that 33% to nearly 40% of the items thrown into single-stream recycling bins across the county are things that can’t be recycled.

The report made five main recommendations based on the audit:

Reduce contaminationTarget specific recyclablesFocus on food wasteCodify waste diversion into county codeDo a better job of recycling textiles.

To reduce contamination, the report recommended that signage and labeling be improved on recycling bins and at recycling facilities to teach people what they should and shouldn’t be throwing away or recycling. More recycling drop sites are also recommended, along with staffing at the sites or installing cameras to ensure contamination is kept to a minimum and people don’t dump their trash into recycling.

The report also recommends that guidelines be instituted by waste haulers that would require better standardized labeling of recycling bins, leaving customer feedback forms and leaving behind highly contaminated recycling bins to avoid contaminating other recyclables that have already collected.

Codifying recycling and composting requirements also was recommended by the report. Suggestions included incorporating recycling in planning and permit documents, considering pay-as-you-throw recycling programs, and creating a universal recycling ordinance restructuring landfill tip fees to encourage construction and demolition waste diversion.

The report recommended that the county focus its efforts on segregating certain recyclables to minimize contamination and increase diversion rates. The report recommended cardboard-only, glass-only and metals-only specific depots be installed to increase the diversion rate for those items.

Summit County, with all its bars and restaurants, also has a big problem with discarded food waste. The report recommended a commercial mandate that requires businesses properly divert organics from the landfill, putting county focus on the biggest commercial food waste generators and to continue expanding the compost program.

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