Local recyclers buck national trend
Despite study indicating downturn, local experts say participation still strong

Crushed cans wait to be recycled at the Durango Recycling Center earlier this week.  Although a new study found that recycling of aluminum cans last year was at a 15-year low, the rate has generally increased in Durango since the city began a curbside recycling program in 1990. - Photo by Jamie Morehart Despite a recent nationwide study that found aluminum-can recycling at its lowest rate in 15 years, local experts say the trend has bypassed La Plata County for now.

“I don’t see a drop in participation at all; we’re still doing really well,” said Nancy Andrews, recycling coordinator for the city of Durango, which has offered a free residential curbside program since 1990.

Although the city reported a slight decline in material recycled between 2000 and 2001, from 2,630 tons to 2,512, those numbers represent a steady climb over previous years. By comparison, only 365 tons were recycled in 1996, the first year figures were available.

Likewise, Mark Thompson, owner of Phoenix Recycling, a private, locally-owned company that collects waste and recycling materials in La Plata County, said interest has been strong in the 1BD years he’s been in business.

“Response has been good,” he said. “We’re growing rapidly.”

The study chronicling the decline was conducted by the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington-D.C.-based nonprofit research group that tracks recycling trends and rates. According to the study, in 2001, 49.2 percent of all aluminum cans bought in the United States were recycled. It was the lowest rate since 1987 and down from an all-time high of 65 percent in 1992. That drop amounted to more than 50.7 billion wasted cans in 2001, according to the group.

“The energy value of those trashed cans was equivalent to 16 million barrels of crude oil or enough energy to supply 2.7 million American homes with electricity for a year,” said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute.
The reasons for the downturn are twofold, says study author, Jennifer Gitlitz. She blames the trend on an increasingly convenience-oriented lifestyle as well as diminishing financial incentives.

“The value of a pound of aluminum cans to folks who collect scrap cans for cash hasn’t changed much in the past decade, but the value of the dollar has declined,” she said. “People are also drinking more beverages on the go, away from the convenience of residential recycling bins.”

Perhaps even more frustrating is that rates are declining despite an increase in curbside recycling programs across the country, according to the group. This has led some cities to question whether free curbside recycling is prudent.

“Nationwide, there are certain areas where programs are being rethought and restructured,” said Thompson, who worked in the industry in California for a number of years before opening his business here.

Possibly the highest-profile case is New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he wants to suspend metal, glass and plastic recycling to help offset a $5 billion budget shortfall. Closer to home in Denver, one city official recently proposed charging for curbside pickup, a move many fear could mean the kiss of death for curbside recycling in the city.

Thompson, who charges between $23.95 and $27.95 a month for his service, admits fees are not such a bad idea, and that a free program is a “lofty goal” for municipalities. The way he sees it, “free” recycling is a bit of a misnomer. The process costs money; it’s just a matter of how it’s paid for, he said.

“The city may have free recycling, but people pay for garbage,” he said. “The recycling program is never free, it’s just paid out of another fund.”

However, he said requiring a recycling fee can be difficult.

“Since it’s free, people have it in the back of their heads that it should be free,” he said.

Andrews, with the city, says there are no plans right now to institute a fee in Durango, and that the city is looking, instead, at ways to weather the fickle commodities market.

“We have good years and bad,” she said of the program, which is subsidized by the city. Last year, the program ended up about $65,000 in the red, whereas the year before, it generated about $61,000.

“The glass market has been depressed for years, but the prices for paper were up, but now those are coming back down,” she said. “There’s always something that we have to deal with.”

To cope with the faltering glass market, particularly green and clear glass, the city bought a glass crusher and is working to sell the crushed glass locally.

“We have been working with a few landscapers who use it as mulch or pea gravel, and setting flagstone,” she said. “There’s also a sandblaster who’s been trying it out.”

In addition to diversifying uses for its existing stock, the city is now looking at plans for plastics recycling and will be holding computer recycling later this month. Although computer recycling will cost $5, Andrews said she hopes people will weigh the relatively small cost against the larger environmental benefits.

“Computers have a lot of nasty stuff in them that contaminates the water,” she said.

Thompson said instilling this kind of thinking in people – that recycling is not just good for keeping waste out of the landfills but reducing pollution – is perhaps his biggest challenge.

“The hard part is getting people to understand the environmental benefits,” he said.

To help remedy that, Thompson said he sends his customers a quarterly newsletter, to “keep them up to speed on what’s going on.”

And he said it seems to be working.

“There’s definitely an education curve,” he said. “I’ve seen people go from recycling just 5 percent of their waste to 25 percent six months down the road,” he said. “I even have some people who recycle way more than 50 percent of their garbage.

As for area residents following suit with the rest of the nation and losing interest in recycling, Thompson is optimistic something like that will never happen.

“I think there are enough people in the area that care about the environment and want to do the right thing.”




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