The Hunt for Green

Sorting out the payday in Denver's new recycling plan.

"There's a split in recycling about single stream," says Susan Kinsella, executive director of Conservatree, a California-based non-profit advocacy group. "It's generally a good arrangement for the local government, and they're often very tight with the collectors. Collecting more materials at curbside is generally what people think is recycling."

But just diverting tonnage from landfills isn't recycling, Kinsella insists -- particularly if a significant percentage of the stuff ends up in another landfill somewhere down the line. What happens inside the plant determines whether yesterday's containers and reading matter are put to "best use" and get a new life, or simply wind up as a fancier kind of trash.

Judging by the truck traffic alone, the new program is catching on big in Denver. The city's bold plunge into single stream is a good indication of the promise -- and the headaches -- of trying to go green and stay in the black at the same time.

Shard times: Workers salvage large fragments, but most of the glass that's sent to the recycling plant ends up as landfill cover.
Anthony Camera
Shard times: Workers salvage large fragments, but most of the glass that's sent to the recycling plant ends up as landfill cover.

Details

To watch a video of single-stream recycling, click here

Out in the parking lot of the Waste Management plant, workers are de-casing stacks of brand-new cans of Pepsi. This is part of WM's "full product destruction" program. The cans will be emptied and crushed, the liquid mixed into compost, the cans and boxes dispatched for recycling, all because of some fizziness defect in the batch. This is also done -- steady, Hoss -- to cases and cases of beer that's past its expiration date, although sometimes Coors takes the decanted beverage and puts it through an ethanol recovery process.

Full product destruction is recycling for purists. It eliminates one side of the recycling triangle emblem that's carried on a host of consumer items these days; the goods go straight from production to reclamation, without the consumer being involved at all. Most recycling programs are much trickier and messier, since they involve trying to recover materials after insatiable consumers have already had their way with them.

According to EPA figures, the United States generated 246 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2005. That's more than 1,600 pounds of crap per citizen. Almost a third of it was recycled; the rest was burned or ended up in a landfill somewhere. Thanks largely to aggressive state and local programs designed to divert residential recyclables from landfills, the percentage of trash that's recycled nationally nearly doubled in the 1990s, but the numbers have crept upward only slightly in recent years. Part of the problem is that 35 to 45 percent of the total waste is generated by the commercial sector, and many businesses still recycle only a fraction of what they throw away. For example, more than half of all office paper still isn't recycled, although it easily could be. Around 90 percent of the printing and office paper in use right now has no recycled content at all.

Statistically, Colorado has a particularly miserable record for recycling. The state ranks 41st in one magazine's survey of waste-management practices and generates up to 40 percent more trash per person than the national average. Industry observers say that's because of cheap landfill costs and a Western guzzle-and-toss-it sensibility.

"The cost of throwing things away is quite low here, compared to many areas of the country," says Marjorie Griek, executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling. "There's more land availability."

Griek notes that some cities have embraced recycling in a big way, including Aspen, which "is doing enormous things to extend the life of its landfill," she says. "They're not going to be able to site another one in that county because of the topography and the cost of the land." Boulder, Fort Collins and Loveland also rank high on her list. Some municipalities require private trash haulers to offer recycling, too; some impose "pay as you throw" fees on residents that are determined by the number of garbage cans you use, providing an economic incentive to recycle. But Griek is frustrated by the lack of any state leadership to help coordinate recycling efforts.

"There's simply no financial support," she says. "There's no state agency that's responsible for recycling. There are no goals set. Job creation is one of the huge benefits of recycling -- and there's a lot of entrepreneurial spirit here and a lot of materials that industry could use. We just don't know how much."

In California, garbage fees and a state mandate to drastically reduce landfill volume have produced sophisticated recycling programs. San Francisco even provides its residents special carts for food scraps, lawn trimmings and other compostables, which make up a quarter of all municipal solid waste. Denver's voluntary program has been much more limited. Back in the days of the sort-it-yourself purple tubs, officials estimated that public participation was as high as 50 percent -- but no one knew for sure, since the handy containers had a way of disappearing. A more realistic figure, Charlotte Pitt says, is around 40 percent.

The city's decision to go to single stream two years ago was driven primarily by rising operational costs. The volume being collected had leveled off several years ago, but the Department of Public Works was seeing an alarming rate of job-related back and leg injuries. "Our guys were picking up five to six hundred bins a day," says Pitt. "Not only that, it was a one-man operation. So they were stopping the truck, hopping out, emptying the bins, getting back in. There were a lot of ankle injuries."

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