Recycling in the Springs: Mounds of opportunity

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Residents of Colorado Springs may imagine their city, with its sparkling skies, clean streets and mountain air, would be one of America’s greenest cities.

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.”

Too much competition?

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.”

6 Responses to Recycling in the Springs: Mounds of opportunity

  1. After moving here I was shocked to see the lack of recycling in such a beautiful city. I even noted we were on our way to “another mountain” associated with the Springs. Ten years later, there is minimal improvement. I applaud Manitou’s initiative to reduce trash. We definitely need to explore options that provide quality recycling, as well as less noise, pollution and street traffic from heavy duty trucks. In addition, while impact may be minimal, adding a recycling sorting center could provide community and economic development. It could even be set up as a nonprofit or L3C. I also applaud some local stores for making us more cognizant of bringing our own bags by stopping the use of plastic bags, and some, supplying any bags. European countries, such as extremely clean Germany, have done this for decades. Bins for recycling, composting, etc. should be a normal sign of great restaurants and businesses that deserve our patronage.
    So as I see it, we need:
    1.Participation in creating the cleanest, greenest city in the nation by leaders and major businesses leading the way.
    2.Investigation into a sorting/recycling center for Colorado Springs.
    3.Education on the importance of recycling for our community.
    4.Collaboration of garbage companies in route structure; restructuring of billing so recycling is included in standard garbage service.
    5.Engage the entire community—from our next generation and up—in creating a fun and exciting “reduce, re-use, recycle and re-purpose” campaign.
    Finally, I get it that it is difficult to instill new habits. And I certainly believe in personal freedom. But loving Colorado Springs as I do, and as an avid backpacker and hiker, I hope we can learn to include a backcountry mantra of “Leave No Trace” or more specifically, “One Less Piece.”

    Vikki Walton
    April 17, 2010 at 9:54 am

  2. I find it astounding that we do not have mandatory recycling here in Colorado! This is DEFINITELY something that should have been started up years ago. I hope it works in Manitou and finally gets adopted by the city!

    April 17, 2010 at 2:10 pm

  3. Part of the problem is not educating the citizens how easy and inexpensive recycling is now. We own a small business and one of our workers would take our aluminum and plastic to recycle. When she left, we called and found out it would only cost $2 a month and that they would take all recyclable products without being separated. We went from an average of 8-10 bags of trash going to the dump to only one. The rest is now recycled and all we do is have 1 container for food and non-recyclable items while all the others are now for recycling.

    Colleen Knapp
    April 17, 2010 at 9:28 pm

  4. On May 1st from 9am – 2pm, the Pikes Peak Earth Day committee is hosting a community-wide, multi-materials recycling collection event for residents called Colorado Springs Recycles. For only $5 per vehicle you can recycle electronics, small appliances, batteries (no auto), CFL bulbs, paint, tires, single-stream recycling (cardboard, plastics, aluminum, glass, etc.) Donations will be accepted for Community Intersections, a local non-profit employing developmentally disabled individuals. Clothing, blankets & non-perishables will also be collected for Marion House. Click on the Colorado Springs Recycles tab at for more information.

    Saturday, May 1st, 9am – 2pm
    University Village Colorado
    5400 N. Nevada
    (shopping center where Costco & Lowe’s are)
    $5 per vehicle
    Recycle electronics, small appliances, batteries (no auto), CFL bulbs, paint, tires, single-stream recycling, ink & toner cartridges
    (For residents, not businesses)

    By offering a convenient location for collection of these potentially hazardous materials, Pikes Peak Earth Day hopes to divert this waste from the landfill by encouraging the public to responsibly recycle. Items collected at Colorado Springs Recycles will be recycled to make new products, reducing the amount of natural resources consumed.

    As a part of its mission, Community Intersections has an electronic recycling program that uses the ethical processing of electronic waste as a mechanism to teach vocational skills and create job opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Up to this point, the program has created eight jobs within a segment of our community that faces nearly 80% unemployment. Money raised for Community Intersections at this event will go directly to helping create even more jobs.

    Dianne Bertini
    April 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm

  5. There are a lot of issue we citizens have to tackle. Recycling is one of many that affect our environment and our quality of life. My recommendation is get involved, get informed and participate in upcoming elections to let your voice be heard.

    Jackie Rockwell
    April 19, 2010 at 8:26 pm

  6. Thank you to Bestway, a Pikes Peak Sustainability Business Network (PPSBN) member, for having the commitment to our community. We appreciate your involvement and the willingness to supply data.

    Eric Cefus
    April 23, 2010 at 11:13 am