After all, the city ranks high on most “best places” lists.
It appears, however, that they’re too busy enjoying life here to recycle our trash.
Among 100 cities rated for residential recycling by Men’s Health last year, the city finished a dismal 98th.
The ratings were based on whether cities have mandatory recycling programs, the convenience of recycling for residents, and the percentage of households that participate in recycling programs.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not rate cities or states, but maintains recycling statistics for the country as a whole. The EPA estimates that a mere 4.6 percent of municipal solid waste was recycled in 1960, compared to 33.2 percent today.
Colorado Springs, it seems, remains stuck in the 1960s.
While exact numbers are elusive, the city ranks well below the national average, and especially poorly compared to cities such as San Francisco and Portland, which recycle nearly 75 percent of their solid waste.
Based on figures from El Paso County, the state, and from local waste disposal companies, the Business Journal estimates that Colorado Springs residents recycle less than 8 percent of the 320,000 tons of solid waste generated annually by the municipality.
As a 2009 “Quality of Life Indicators” report published by United Way pointed out, “Our community’s pounds per person of waste have increased over the last few years. El Paso County citizens generate more waste than the U.S. average and the trend is not improving.”
Between 2001 and 2008, the pounds of waste deposited per person per day into El Paso County’s three local landfills grew by 30 percent, from 4.99 pounds to 6.48 pounds.
Need further evidence of the city’s poor track record?
In 2008, Popular Science compiled a list of the “50 greenest cities in America.” Colorado Springs was not among them, although peer cities such as Albuquerque, Austin, Denver, Tulsa and Salt Lake City were all included in the top 25.
Eric Cefus, the executive director of the Catamount Institute, which sponsors the Sustainable Business Network, said these national rankings may discourage businesses and young professionals from coming to Colorado Springs.
“Our reputation is, true or not, that we don’t take care of our environment in Colorado Springs,” Cefus said. “That’s not helpful to us. Sustainability is increasingly important to businesses and to people choosing where they want to live.”
A number of factors contribute to the city’s abysmal performance.
Many cities provide trash collection and recycling as a municipal service, or have mandated city-wide recycling programs.
Large, predictable waste streams of recyclable items provide the economies of scale needed to fund multimillion-dollar single-stream recycling centers which separate mixed recyclables for reuse.
Colorado Springs relies upon private contractors for waste disposal. The city is principally served by four private companies, which have provided single-stream recycling to their customers since 2008. The service isn’t free, and depends upon the willingness of customers to pay an additional recycling charge. All four companies truck their recyclables to sorting centers in Denver or Boulder.
Bestway is the largest locally owned waste disposal company. Like its competitors, the company provides customers with special containers, which are emptied every week.
The company accepts newspapers, junk mail and corrugated cardboard as well as plastic, steel, aluminum and glass containers. In 2009, Bestway processed more than 5,500 tons of customer recyclables.
“Approximately 25 percent of our residential customers use the service,” said Bestway manager Judd Staton. “This is not necessarily a moneymaker for us, but it’s something that our customers want.”
Well, at least some customers.
Cefus has several explanation for the city’s record.
“It’s not very green to collect your recyclables and then truck them to Denver or Boulder,” said Cefus, “and having multiple companies run trucks to pick up recyclables in the same neighborhood is inefficient and expensive.
“(Also), we need a single- stream center here, but none of the companies have enough of the market to build one.”
Manitou Springs is trying a different approach.
Rather than allowing residents to pick their own trash service, Manitou is introducing an experimental program in which a quarter of the city will be served by a single provider, which will be required to provide recycling services.
The city expects to lessen heavy truck traffic on Manitou’s narrow, hilly streets and to make recycling services more affordable to residents.
Successful regional recycling, said Cefus, will eventually require that other local governments mandate similar programs.
“Without city mandates, and without city support for a single-stream sorting center, we won’t have one,” he said.
Cefus remains hopeful.
“Eventually,” he predicted, “we’ll move into a more European model, with a regulatory model that reduces and restricts throwaways.
“Then maybe we’ll be able to walk down Fountain Creek and it won’t be littered with plastic bags and bottles.”