King of the Dump

As the market for recycled materials dries up, King Soopers trashes part of its recycling program.

Only two out of eight glass-recycling bins remain standing outside the King Soopers store at Ninth Avenue and Downing Street. The mouths of the other six are turned toward the store wall--a sign, perhaps, of the chain's decision to wean its customers of their glass-recycling habits.

The air inside the recycling room adjacent to the grocery store is dense with the residual smell of beans, chili, tomato sauce and soup. The steel cans may not have been thoroughly scrubbed, but customers have made a valiant effort to ensure that their trash becomes someone else's treasure.

Peter Coster and his wife have left many such castaways here. They've been taking their used items to the Capitol Hill store since September, when they moved to the neighborhood. Before that they deposited their glass, plastic, cans--"whatever they would take"--to the King Soopers on Speer Boulevard.

The Costers like it that they live within walking distance of the store they've always relied on for recycling. But a couple of weeks ago, Coster noticed the signs announcing that King Soopers, one of Colorado's biggest sources for recycled materials, would stop accepting recycled plastic, steel cans and glass from customers.

King Soopers officials say they had to opt out of accepting the items because of a downturn in the market for those recyclables. The grocery chain's recycler, a small company called Consumer Plastics Recycling, is going out of business. Also, the chain's system of "backhauling" recycled goods has made it impossible for King Soopers to continue collecting the items. Rather than using one fleet of trucks to deliver food and another to haul the recycled items, King Soopers uses the same fleet for both purposes. For health reasons, the FDA recently imposed regulations to put a stop to that practice.

"It would cost King Soopers millions of dollars to redo their whole trucking system," says Diane Beal, executive director of Colorado Recycles, a nonprofit organization that educates people about recycling. Stores like Safeway, she says, have contracts with larger corporations that ship recycled goods out of state for processing. And those companies probably don't have the capacity to accept a new customer as large as King Soopers.

Dave Savage, King Soopers' vice president of retail operations, says the grocery store's decision was not motivated by money. "We weren't going to tell the customer we're recycling when the material was headed for a landfill."

In addition to the plastic that will be left in landfills now that Consumer Plastics Recycling is closing its doors, CPR owner Paul Sullivan is also leaving behind a legacy in the recycling industry. He is touted by colleagues as a hero for his willingness to go out on a limb to recycle plastic items that usually are left to decompose.

Sullivan, whose eight-person company has been operating out of downtown Denver since 1994, says that the high cost of eliminating contaminants from used plastic has left no incentive for companies to make products out of recycled resin. He says he's lost money in the past but always stuck it out until the market recovered. However, after the latest low point in the cycle--Sullivan has been losing money since September--he decided he doesn't want to wait another agonizing month for the market to improve.

The current low price of petroleum has fueled the plastics industry's increased use of "virgin" plastic containers. At the same time, plastic is much more difficult--and costly--to recycle than aluminum. The cost lies in cleaning and reforming the plastic, which is not as compact and malleable as aluminum. Similar challenges face recyclers of steel and glass.

Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, a Boulder County nonprofit recycling company that was CPR's biggest client after King Soopers, says he's disappointed but understands the grocery chain's decision. The real problem, he says, is that Colorado ranks among the cheapest places in the nation to bury trash and is building more new landfills than any other state--which makes it less expensive to throw trash away than to recycle it. Landfills, which in Colorado are run mostly by private companies, charge dumpers $15 a ton. Cities and businesses in Florida typically pay $90 a ton; landfills in Los Angeles charge $120 a ton.

"If you had that price here for landfills, King Soopers wouldn't have to do what they're doing, and there would be so much recycling that your head would spin," Lombardi says. "King Soopers isn't a villain here."

Still, he adds, King Soopers' decision is "a serious blow to a lot of parts of the state. In many rural areas in Colorado, King Soopers was the only place for people to leave their recycled items." The chain, which has 77 stores in Colorado, has been recycling aluminum since 1977 and plastic since the early 1980s; its recycling program accounted for more than one quarter of the state's recycling collection.

Lombardi predicts other plastics recycling programs will soon fold, too. "King Soopers is just the first," he says.

One impact of the dwindling market for plastics--and King Soopers' decision to no longer accept the materials--is that the public won't feel as inclined to recycle again later, says Jack DeBell, who runs the recycling program at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

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