For those of us who grew up in Colorado Springs during the 1940s and 1950s, “reduce, re-use and recycle” wasn’t just a feel-good slogan.
The milkman came to your door with new bottles of milk and took the old ones away to wash and re-use. A case of Coca-Cola came in a wooden crate with glass bottles — a 50-cent deposit on the case, another nickel on each bottle. Neighborhood groceries sold foods in bulk; goods at the hardware store were neither packaged nor coded.
Men’s suits typically came with two pairs of pants. Styles rarely changed, so a suit was expected to last for 20 years. My mother bought a toaster in 1937, and was dismayed to find out that it couldn’t be repaired when it died 50 years later.
Depression and war bred thrift. You didn’t throw things away, because they might be useful some day.
But as the consumer economy gained strength in the second half of the 20th Century, “save and re-use” gave way to “toss and replace.”
In 1960, Americans generated 88.1 million tons of municipal solid waste and recycled only 6.4 percent, or 5.6 million tons. By 2011, we were recycling 34.7 percent but generating a staggering 250.4 million tons.
Some cities, such as Portland and San Francisco, manage to recycle more than 70 percent of their MSW. They do so in part by making recycling mandatory, convenient and cheap. It also helps that a large majority of residents of those cities embrace the recycling ethos.
In Colorado Springs, recycling is voluntary. That, and past indifference by local government and businesses, contributed to the city’s once-abysmal recycling scores. For a city blessed with an extraordinary natural environment, it was dismaying to learn five years ago that the magazine Men’s Health ranked the Springs 98th of 100 cities for residential recycling.
In 2012, El Paso County’s active landfills received 2.47 million cubic yards of solid waste, out of a state total of 20.6 million tons. Slightly less than 15 percent of the total was recycled, putting us well below the national average of 34.7 percent.
Yet things are improving. Blue Star Recyclers, a nonprofit that recycles consumer electronics and provides employment to people with disabilities, has removed more than 3 million pounds of electronics from local waste streams since 2009. Broad community coalitions have formed to promote recycling, and a locally owned waste hauler has invested millions in a 50,000-square-foot materials recovery facility.
If it goes to a landfill, trash is taken to one of three active commercial landfills in El Paso County. Certain kinds of municipally generated solid waste, such as street sweepings, are taken to a city-owned noncommercial facility as is waste generated by Colorado Springs Utilities (e.g. sewage sludge).
Like most landfills these days, local sites monitor and control the waste they receive. You can’t drive up to the site with a pickup full of miscellaneous junk, drive to the edge of a festering mound of garbage and throw it in the pile.
That hasn’t always been the case. From 1970 to 1986, John Bock operated a commercial landfill west of 26th Street on land that is now part of Red Rocks Open Space. It was lightly regulated at best, charging a simple per-load fee. When applying for licensure, Bock stated that “(The) land is not suitable for development as a deep canyon exists but has good potential when filled … we anticipate the land will be developed at some point in time to a very accreditable (sic) development, and that the Landfill area will probably be part of a very fine golf course and recreation area.”
The once-scenic canyon is now a sloping meadow. Beneath several feet of gravel and topsoil lies a vast heap of unsorted, uncompacted trash. Future archaeologists may one day excavate it and marvel at the wasteful excesses of their ancestors.
Today’s landfills are tidier than Bock’s windblown junkpile, but they still reflect our throwaway ethos. Three years ago, volunteers from the Recycling Coalition of Colorado Springs hand-sorted three cubic yards of randomly selected compacted residential trash, or approximately the amount that 10 families would produce in a week.
The volunteers found that more than half, or 158 pounds, could have been diverted from landfills. Recyclable materials included electronics (2 percent), clothing and toys (14 percent) and compostable food waste (4 percent).
The largest category, amounting to 108 pounds, consisted of material that could have been recycled through a single-stream curbside container. Such material includes plastics 1-7, cardboard, mixed paper, aluminum and metals, and glass bottles and jars.
“Quite honestly, we were surprised that the amount of recyclable materials was so low,” said Jane Ard-Smith of the Recycling Coalition. “I thought that 80 or 90 percent would be recyclable — but we have no way of knowing whether the trash came from neighborhoods with high recycling rates.”
For a few extra dollars a month, most local trash haulers offer single stream recycling. Until early this year, all such materials were hauled to materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in Denver and Boulder for sorting and shipping.
Locally owned Bestway Disposal opened the city’s first MRF last year in north-central Colorado Springs. The facility now processes commercial and residential recyclables from almost every waste hauler in Colorado Springs. It’s the only MRF between Denver and Albuquerque.
Housed in a clear-span structure that was originally a manufactured home facility, it’s an impressive operation. Forty-five employees work in two daily shifts, processing 10 tons of recyclables an hour. Unsorted materials enter the system via fast moving conveyor belts, where employee teams do preliminary and secondary sorting. Computer-controlled baling machines spit out compressed blocks of cardboard, aluminum cans, steel cans, paper and plastics.
“It goes all over,” said Bestway co-owner Phil Kiemel. “A lot of paper and cardboard goes to California, while plastics may go overseas to a variety of buyers. Steel cans go right down the road to Pueblo.”
Business has grown exponentially in the past year.
“We’re hoping for 30,000 tons this year,” said Kiemel. “We’re getting business from Salida, Custer County, all over southern Colorado — but the Pueblo guys still drive right past us to Denver. We think that’ll change.”
MRFs aren’t cheap.
“You can spend $100 million, or you can spend a lot less like we did,” said Kiemel.
And that would be how much?
“Well, let’s just say that it was a lot for a small company, but we think it was a good investment,” he replied.
The Pikes Peak Sustainability Project has set a stretch goal of recycling 70 percent of El Paso County’s solid waste by 2030.
“Can we do it?” asked Ard-Smith. “Without some involvement from government, it’ll be difficult. I think we’re going to learn a lot from Fort Carson, though.”
Fort Carson has a zero waste-to-landfill goal by 2027. To reach this goal, the Mountain Post proposes “putting into place incentives to re-use or recycle products, creating a composting program, coordinating with local organizations to encourage recycling and re-use, recycling and re-using construction and demolition waste and taking product life cycle costs as well as environmental and social costs into account.”
But volunteerism has its limits.
“Half of our customers have signed up for single-stream,” Kiemel noted, “and that’s amazing for a volunteer program.” Moving to 100 percent might require a county-wide mandate, and that seems unlikely.
As Kiemel put it, “We’re still a little bit in the Wild West.”