Reality Check on Regional Recycling

Bales of post-consumer plastic sorted for recycling.

Bales of post-consumer plastic sorted for recycling.

The largest waste and recycling provider on the Western Slope is Waste Management out of Grand Junction.  Waste Management provides commercial waste and recycling services for Telluride, Mountain Village, Ridgway, and Ouray (town and county), and residential curbside trash and recycling services for the outlying areas of Montrose County.  The hamlet of Ophir is served by Waste Management with trash and recycling picked up from a central drop-off location.  Additionally, WM provides residential curbside trash and recycling for many communities, large and small, including: Grand Junction, Glenwood Springs, Roaring Fork, Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, Rifle, New Castle, Fruita, and parts of Palisade.

Ken Stevens, the manager of WM’s Grand Junction Material Recovery Facility (a recycling plant), was kind enough to share information with me about WM’s recycling services.  Due to the immense volume of recycled material collected, WM is able to sell directly to “end users,” which are the companies that purchase recycled material and make new products from it. Eliminating the middle man enables WM to leverage its volume on certain materials, which helps WM get the material back into circulation.

The Material Recovery Facility in Grand Junction is housed in a 13,000 sq. ft. building on 5 acres, which is shared with WM’s hauling division (the division that picks up the trash and recycling). Material arrives by truck to the facility in two streams: fiber and commingled material. Once it arrives, it is sorted into specific material types and then packaged into 4 ft. x 5 ft. bales to be shipped out.

Waste Management takes in approximately 30-40 tons of plastics #1 through #7 per month.  WM’s plastics are sold all over the country to places like Alabama, California and Texas. The strongest market for plastics is for #1 & #2 plastics. The market for plastics #3 through #7 remains depressed, but by selling to an end user, WM is able to cover much of their costs for taking these products.  Stevens understands the necessity in taking all recyclable material: the residents and businesses commit to initiating the recycling process, so WM commits to recycling all possible products.

Aluminum and tin carry a strong market. These materials are sold and quickly made into new cans.

Due to the weight, breakage (that is dangerous and can contaminate other products), and a low price point, “glass is a tough commodity,” says Stevens. But like other products, WM is committed to taking glass, so they try to minimize handling by asking their customers at some of their drop-off locations to sort their glass into containers for clear or colored glass.  WM takes in 60 to 70 tons of glass per month and sells it directly to bottlers who specify either clear or colored glass.  It is then crushed into “cullet” and made into new bottles.  At least 75 percent of the glass that WM takes in makes it into new bottles.

Cardboard carries a historically consistent market and is readily recycled into new products; it is sold domestically to New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon and other locations.  Office-grade paper is made into new office paper, as well as other consumer goods like paper towels and bath tissue.  Newspaper is made into new newsprint, as well as ground for cellulose insulation.

The recycling industry is based on supply and demand. Buying post-consumer products (products made from recycled material) strongly supports the recycling industry as a whole.  Stevens closed our conversation by reminding the public, “We are good at consuming it, using it, and recycling it.  We also need to get good at repurchasing it.”

Personally committing to recycle all possible products is a very important step, but recycling is an energy-intensive process. Avoiding single-use items, purchasing products that are built to last and selecting items with minimal packaging are always the best practices. By not purchasing products with excessive packaging or packaging that cannot be recycled, consumers can send a message to companies that they want smart packaging.  And keep the cycle going by purchasing post-consumer material.

Heather Knox  is the executive director for EcoAction Partners. EcoAction Partners is our region’s sustainability organization, focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy projects and tracking our regional progress toward these goals.  Additionally EcoAction Partners works with the community to reduce waste, increase local food supply and encourage other sustainable practices.