Aspen to continue existing recycle center funding for one year

RecyclingMonster - Aspen City Council agreed to continue funding operations at an in-town recycling drop-off center for at least one more year on Monday night, picking up a tab north of $250,000 previously paid for by Pitkin County, while acknowledging that changes will likely need to be made in concert with a broader conversation about waste reduction goals.

Members of the public surveyed by the city overwhelmingly supported continued public funding of the recycle center, after the county’s long-anticipated move to cease its subsidy that pays for waste haulers to pick up materials there. The recycle center, which has been open off of Rio Grande Place since the 1990s, has increasingly become a money-losing proposition due to a collapse in the market for recycled materials. Historically the county funded the pick-up there while the city maintained the facility, but the county has ceased funding for all its recycling drop-off centers, though materials can still be taken to the solid waste center located at the landfill off of Highway 82. The county’s funding of recycling pick ups at the city’s center runs out in August.

“We heard a lot of ‘please, please, please [don’t close the center]’ in the comments,” city environmental health specialist Liz Chapman said, summarizing public feedback. “So that tells us people care a lot about this in our community and want it to continue.”

Overall, nearly 1,200 tons of material are dropped off at the recycle center annually, which is the equivalent of 19 days’ worth of trash buried at the landfill, if the materials were not diverted.

Aspen City Council, in its second week since a new mayor and two new members were sworn in, faced a decision Monday on whether to pick up the tab for operations as they currently exist with single-stream recycling provided, transition to less expensive “targeted materials collections” where only certain items are picked up and they must be separated, or close the center down completely.

The board was unanimously in favor of a hybrid approach recommended by city staff that will see the city fund existing operations at the center for at least one more year, while reevaluating broader waste reduction goals. During the one-year time frame, “City Council can work with staff to create waste diversion goals … and a strategic plan for achieving those goals. With these goals in place, staff will assess the most economical and effective materials to target for collection at the [recycle center],” says a memo to city council written by Chapman, which lays out staff’s recommendation for the hybrid approach.

Central to Monday’s discussion was the fact that all city of Aspen residents and businesses already pay for recycling pick up as part of their trash service. This has been the law in Aspen since 2005, yet fewer than 40 percent of city residents avail themselves of the mandatory curbside pick up, according to staff. According to Chapman, part of the reason for this is that some properties do not have room on site for large recycle bins.

Pitkin County last year passed an ordinance, which took effect in January, duplicating the city’s policy so that all trash haulers serving unincorporated Pitkin County homes and businesses must also pick up recyclables.

Increasing education about universal curbside recycling pickup was seen as important to the future of the recycle center. If more people used the curbside service, with less material flowing to the recycle center, it would be cheaper to maintain the facility. It could also allow an increased variety of materials to be recycled there. Currently, there are 16 bins devoted to single-stream recycling, taking up nearly all the available real estate, and they are filled every day, Chapman said. With less single-stream volume, additional programs for composting or other kinds of waste diversion could be added.

Targeted recycling also has the potential to reduce volume, since materials tend to be more condensed, also potentially freeing up more space.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins, expressing a unanimous sentiment, said that the existing operations at the recycle center must continue until a “satisfactory alternative” is developed.

Mayor Torre said it is important to have the larger conversation about reducing waste overall in the community and he is pleased that the majority of council is supportive of those efforts. He noted that 40 percent of what is thrown away at the landfill, excluding construction waste, could be composted.

“Everyone should get on board with composting and we are going to make that easier,” he said.

Torre added he would need to be convinced that a move to targeted collections would not wind up decreasing the effectiveness of the overall recycling program. 

“I am interested in how we increase capture,” he said. “That’s why we went to single stream because of its convenience and ease.”

Councilwoman Rachel Richards noted that the state of Colorado is working on initiatives to strengthen the market for recycled materials and that the city should lend whatever support it can to those efforts.

Increasing education about universal curbside recycling, particularly among county residents where the service is new, is also critical, she said.

One possible discussion that could happen involves having a dedicated revenue stream for recycling, she said, such as a 5-cent deposit or fee for bottles and cans. That way, recycling would be supported as a community value without having to compete for general fund dollars with the police and parks department.

Funding the center for an additional year to the tune of $300,000 to $350,000, which is staff’s estimate of the likely cost of the contract through August 2020, is one thing.

“But $300,000, $350,000 over 10 years, you are talking real money,” she said. That could easily fund two or three police officers or other critical priorities. Richards said she supported the direction for one more year of recycling funding but is anxious to start the larger conversation about the other legs of the stool — reducing and reusing.

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