How recycling works at the Gunnison County facility

From trash to new beer cans, fresh bottles, insulation, drywall and tissues

By Tori R. Jarosh

On your way to the Hartman Rocks trailhead, you probably think of the singletrack you may shred. As you loop around the end of the airport, the thought of your last overnight delay might haunt you… but just before you round the corner for the final straight-away, you’ll be driving past the subtle right turn leading to the Gunnison County Recycling Center. Raising your palm to your forehead you think of the cans you once again abandoned at home in the overflowing recycling bins. Luckily, the rattle of cans, pings of tossed tin and neighborly greetings are welcome 24/7 at the Recycling Center. 

When you do decide to get there with your recycle bins, you will be joining the local coalition of peoplwe who have made the conscious decision to sort their disposables and add just a little bit to saving the world. You become a member of a communal recycling effort responsible for giving new life to nearly two million pounds of glass, cardboard, paper, plastic and tin coming from this county each year. 

By reducing the amount of waste entering the Gunnison County Landfill you are helping clean up the planet and extend the life of the local garbage depository. “The ultimate goal of the Recycling Center is to extend the life of the landfill,” said Martin Schmidt, assistant Gunnison County manager for Public Works. 

Without a footprint expansion, the County Landfill is designed to operate for about 75 years. The lifespan of the landfill is divided into four phases beginning in the early 1990s; today, we sit in the middle of phase two. This means the landfill is almost halfway through its planned lifespan.

Tons of trash

Approximately 20,000 tons of trash is buried at the local landfill annually, while about 1,000 tons of recycled materials are diverted to the county’s Recycling Center each year. Though this only equates to around 5% of yearly landfill mass, the Center has room for more recycling from the community. It should also be noted that most debris entering the landfill is construction waste which is much heavier than high-volume items like plastics or beer cans found in typical household recyclables. Schmidt said that mattresses are also a lesser-known recycled item which amounted to 45 tons of recycled waste in 2022. 

The Recycling Center is not an immediate money-making operation, but it is designed to save significant landfill expansion costs down the line. The Recycling Center pays for about half of its operational costs through the sale of its recycled material; the remaining costs are covered by landfill fees. For example, the Recycling Center is paid 5 to 10 cents per pound of plastic; if the whole of the plastic section at the Center is filled, it would equate to about 600 pounds or one bale sold for $50. 

Where does it go and what does it become?

Plastics are sent from the Recycling Center to Salt Lake City to make carpet backing, pipe and detergent bottles. Cardboard is sent to Oklahoma to make drywall paper and cardboard box liner. Mattresses are bought by a company called Spring Back Colorado located in Commerce City where the various elements of the mattress are utilized. Glass is sent to Coors in Golden. Aluminum is sent to Alabama to make more cans. Tin is shipped to Illinois to make steel rods like rebar. Newspapers and magazines are sent across Colorado, Texas and Idaho to make cardboard or insulation. Office paper is sent to Oklahoma and Arizona to make writing paper and tissues. Numbers 1 & 2 plastics have been the only plastics accepted by the Center since its inception in the early 1990s — this is because the County cannot source a buyer of higher graded plastic products despite significant efforts to do so. Waste Management in Crested Butte has not disclosed exactly where they send their #3-7 graded plastics.

Schmidt said the County Recycling Center is capable of taking on bigger loads of recyclables than it typically receives. The center employs three full-time and one part-time employee who sift through the community’s recyclables.

Not everything dropped at the Recycling Center can be recycled. “It is a pain,” admitted Schmidt when asked about the burden of receiving unacceptable items, but he is confident in the staff’s developed eye for what does not belong. He also mentioned that labels or even caps do not impact an item’s recyclability, however improperly sorted or overly dirty items do negatively impact operation. 

Some contamination is acceptable, but “the cleaner the better” Schmidt explained. A jar of peanut butter with a lot of residue still inside or a pizza box that seemed to endure a torrential downpour of grease should not be dropped off. The company that purchases the county’s plastic recyclables only allows 1-5% of contamination per plastic bale. A reasonable amount of contamination can be dealt with. 

Schmidt’s response to a rumor that only 1-2% of deposited recyclables are truly recycled was that it was totally off the mark. “I believe it is the inverse,” he said. Schmidt said more than 95% of the recycles are utilized. He went on to explain that only four dumpsters of unacceptable items are trashed per week, while the staff compiles between 10-15 large bales of compacted recyclables per day on average. 

Schmidt recently received the good news that the recycling center had been awarded a $30,000 grant to support mattress recycling.

Schmidt went on to say that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to recycling collection in the county. Some find sorting their recycling burdensome and complain about too many bins, but single-stream recycling would increase the Recycling Center’s workload three-fold. When questioned about the role of community members in the recycling effort, he emphasized that, “while we want to make it as easy as possible to recycle, we also feel that there is a responsibility to the individual to do some level of work to be responsible for the waste they create.” 

So, the next time you think about just tossing that beer can or newspaper in the garbage can, take the extra time to recycle it. You might see it come back in another life as fresh insulation or a new can filled with fresh beer. 

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