The Hunt for Green

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

"All of the [MRFs] will tell you they're doing a great job and they have just a little residue. There's certainly been an improvement in the technology. But there's less attention to quality, and the market is no longer dictating the quality or the volume of the material."

Like Gertman, with whom she co-authored a "best practices manual" for single-stream recycling, Kinsella would like to see cities such as Denver work closely with the MRFs and the mills to develop strategies to combat downcycling. "We need to turn the system on its head," she says. "Instead of a garbage system with recycling tacked on, it should be a resource system with a little bit of garbage. Nobody's operating it as a whole system."

Operating a whole system with the aim of "zero waste" has long been the goal of Boulder's Eco-Cycle, a pioneering advocacy group that's one of the oldest and largest non-profit recyclers in the country. The group contracts with Boulder County to handle its recycling and is currently building a state-of-the-art material recovery facility that will focus on "best and highest use" practices. "Downcycling is a reality in the recycling industry," says Eric Lombardi, Eco-Cycle's executive director. "It's something we would like to minimize."

High on fiber: Waste Management operations manager Jose Herrera (above) says the move to single stream quadrupled his workforce; Denver's recycling czar, Charlotte Pitt (right, flanked by city employees), found that automated trucks reduced injuries.
Anthony Camera
High on fiber: Waste Management operations manager Jose Herrera (above) says the move to single stream quadrupled his workforce; Denver's recycling czar, Charlotte Pitt (right, flanked by city employees), found that automated trucks reduced injuries.
The junk stops here: Trucks from across the Front Range unload at Denver's single-stream recycling plant (above); inside, workers sort through thirty tons of recyclables an hour.
Anthony Camera
The junk stops here: Trucks from across the Front Range unload at Denver's single-stream recycling plant (above); inside, workers sort through thirty tons of recyclables an hour.

Lombardi consults frequently with the commercial sector, showing businesses how they can commit to environmental savings that also produce bottom-line savings -- for example, by making their own purchases more predictable and recyclable, reducing their waste costs drastically. "Businesses will do it," he says. "They're glad to do the green thing, if you'll hold their hand while they're getting used to it."

Ultimately, he says, cities should be aiming for the kind of three-pronged approach now used in San Francisco: one collection for wet compostables, another for dry recyclables, and a dwindling stream of trash headed for the landfill. According to the EPA, landfills are now the primary source of methane from human activity -- and methane, a greenhouse gas, figures prominently in all global-warming scenarios.

"Who's paying for that pollution right now?" Lombardi asks. "No one."

Eco-Cycle is now planning for a huge "zero waste center" in Boulder County. Instead of a landfill, it would provide composting and demonstrate recovery of "the 90 percent of the discard stream that actually has market value as a feedstock material for industry," as the Eco-Cycle website puts it.

"This is a global problem," Lombardi says. "We think this is where the nation needs to go. I'm a great believer in the private sector, but the government sets the rules about what it expects from recycling. The government has to step up."

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