• Original Reporting
  • On the Ground
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
On the Ground Indicates that a Newsmaker/Newsmakers was/were physically present to report the article from some/all of the location(s) it concerns.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
A large block of aluminum cans at Alpine's Altogether Recycling — the state's largest recycling facility — on July 20, 2018 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brent Hildebrand, a vice president at Alpine Waste & Recycling, sets on a table a mangled piece of metal. In a previous life, it was a horseshoe.

“That little piece of metal caused our equipment to be down for a couple of hours. That’s huge for us. We just couldn’t find it, it was so small,” said Hildebrand, whose office is adjacent to the company’s material recovery facility, or MRF (pronounced “murf”). “I know what people are thinking: It’s metal. But no horseshoes.”

Recycling in Colorado is a tedious, cost-prohibitive business that remains largely voluntary for residents.

Costs rose this year when China, the largest buyer of recyclable materials, imposed new restrictions to clean up its own country. China now accepts sorted materials, such as paper or plastic, so long as they are no more than 1 percent contaminated with aluminum cans, plastic bags or, yes, horseshoes. That was a tough, new standard for many U.S. companies, which often collected, sorted and baled cardboard boxes, plastic bottles or paper with contamination rates of at least 10 to 20 percent.

MORE: Coloradans generate 9.6 pounds of trash per person, per day. Where does it all go?

The result?

China is turning away recycled waste from America. Around Colorado, haulers made adjustments: Waste Management in Larimer County is temporarily tossing low-value plastic containers — the ones marked No. 3, 6 or 7, including the clam-shell containers in which fresh strawberries are sold — into the landfill. Grand Junction’s Curbside Recycling indefinitely stopped accepting blister-plastic containers in January. Henderson’s Pro Disposal & Recycling, which serves the Denver suburbs, raised its prices.

But Colorado recyclers say it’s not as terrible as it sounds. Many had already spent years cleaning up their waste. And economic changes are forcing them to find new domestic buyers of recyclables. This is, after all, a business — and recyclers have adjusted to the new future.

“There never used to be a fee for recycling” in the Roaring Fork Valley, said Mike Hinkley, district manager with Mountain Waste & Recycling in Carbondale, where customers near its headquarters saw what used to be free recycling services switch to a fee of $5.

“When we set trash up at a resident’s home, the baseline fee includes trash and recycling,” Hinkley said. “But we can’t keep up with (rising costs), so we instituted a fee for recycling. We’ve had a handful of people drop out, but some people have come back because they know it’s the right thing to do.”

Crews at Alpine’s Altogether Recycling go through their daily process of sorting through mountains of recyclable materials on July 20, 2018 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado households have been recycling tons more trash over the past decade. But as population has grown, so has the amount of waste sent to state landfills. Because of that, the overall rate of waste diverted from landfills to recycling or composting has declined, casting an unexpected light on the environment-friendly reputations of Denver and the rest of the state.

A few years ago, Denver was shamed for this shocking statistic: a recycling rate of 18 percent, which was half that of similar cities and even lower than Salt Lake City’s, at 38 percent, and much lower than that of Fresno, Calif., at 71 percent.

Colorado officials took notice, and in August 2017, the state’s Solid & Hazardous Waste Commission passed a resolution to get the state to a 45 percent diversion, or recycling, rate by 2036, with a 51 percent goal for the Front Range. But it’s just a goal. No penalties are part of the plan.

“We’re low. There’s no bones about it. Colorado is at the bottom of the barrel,” said Laurie Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling, a trade group. “But you don’t know where you are unless you know where you started. And we don’t, in Colorado, have the best (understanding) of what’s happening with the materials because there are no mandates to track it.”

According to the state Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado’s diversion rate has been declining since peaking at 26.1 percent in 2012. The national average is about 34 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

State regulators call Colorado’s rate, now at 20.5 percent, misleading because, unlike the EPA rate, it compares the weight of recycled materials to the weight of all landfill waste, an amount that has swelled in recent years and includes construction waste. Just take a look at the actual data:

Further skewing the data is the fact that some cardboard is lighter today than it used to be, and there’s less newspaper recycling, which once made up 70 percent of recycled paper waste, said Wolf Kray, an environmental protection specialist at the state health department. The rate doesn’t tell the real story of how much Colorado households are recycling, so the state is cleaning up that figure.

“We’re probably recycling more than we’re reporting,” Kray said. “We’ll have better data next year.”

Crews at Alpine’s Altogether Recycling go through their daily process of sorting through mountains of recyclable materials on July 20, 2018 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Peel away the layers of eco-guilt and there’s an underlying financial motive to clean up Earth. While some corporations have been touting their environmental efforts, they’re simultaneously cutting back their expenses. Starbucks, Marriott International and others are banning plastic straws, which are too small for many MRFs to sort efficiently. That saves Starbucks from buying 1 billion straws a year. Companies such as Amazon are pushing “frustration-free” packaging to cut down on the inane box-within-a-cardboard-box delivery. That eliminated 305 million shipping boxes in 2017, according to Amazon.

And there are U.S. companies paying for our recycled waste. International Paper, based in Memphis, Tenn., has 18 recycling facilities in North America to feed recovered office paper and corrugated boxes to mills making new paper products. Old plastic soda bottles are snapped up by carpet mills in Georgia and made into, well, carpet. Trex uses plastic grocery bags to make its faux-wood patio deck boards.

The MillerCoors-owned Rocky Mountain Bottle Co., based in Colorado, recovered 300 tons of recycled glass, shipped it to Denver and repurposed it in bottles for Coors Light, Miller Light and Blue Moon just during last fall. Also in Colorado, Penrose-based Applegate Insulation said it can’t get enough old newspaper, which the company turns into spray-on insulation, paper shavings for pet bedding, mulch, and products that safely absorb industrial spills and liquid waste.

Ball Corp., in Broomfield, buys used aluminum, a lucrative business. The metal can be reused infinitely in products such as cans for Longmont’s Oskar Blues beer.

“Metal cans are the most valuable packaging container in the recycling stream, so they often subsidize the recovery of other packages with little or no value,” said Renee Robinson, Ball’s director of corporate communications. “Our goal is to make the can the most sustainable package in the packaging-supply chain, so we have been doing a ton of work in this area, along with our customers and partners, and will continue to do so.”

Much of the waste that consumers believe is recyclable probably is. And recyclers are slowly expanding what they’ll accept. Alpine’s investment in technology — such as Clarke, the milk-carton-sorting robotic arm built by AMP Robotics in Boulder — has helped Alpine run more efficiently and recycle items consumers were once trained to toss, from Styrofoam and milk-carton caps to, coming soon, the controversial, plastic-lined Starbucks coffee cups. (Consumer tip on the carton caps: Keep them attached to the containers.)

China’s restrictions have motivated the industry to find domestic buyers.

“Everybody hit the panic button because starting in the middle of last year, China began slowing down and taking less and less, and now it’s nothing. And people are saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s not going to China. Is it going to a landfill?’ If it was, I would not have a job. My job is to find homes for these things,” said Clint Cordonnier, logistics manager for Bestway Disposal, which picks up trash and recycling for much of Colorado Springs. “I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy developing relationships. There is not one bit of material that comes to this facility that goes to China.”

It’s a business, Cordonnier said. And yes, he added, “it is profitable. There are times that it’s more on the break even, but nobody is losing money on it.”

Roots Recycling, a curbside recycling service in the Pueblo area, picks up trash and recycling every other week, which costs less than running trash trucks weekly. Also, it costs customers about $27 a month, less than getting trash-only service weekly.

MORE: A nonprofit recycling company in tiny Swink is defying expectations for rural Colorado recycling.

In California, regulatory fees on aluminum cans and TVs/monitors tack on an additional fee at the time of purchase to help fund recycling efforts later. Government mandates, however, are rare in Colorado.

In Aspen, a city ordinance requires all residential trash companies to also pick up recyclables — and no discounts if a resident doesn’t want recycling. Even Boulder, which mandates all trash haulers offer recycling, doesn’t force people to participate.

Still, recycling continues to be worthwhile for local trash haulers because it’s often subsidized by regular trash customers, whether they recycle or not, said Rick DePaiva, district manager of Pro Disposal & Recycling.

For the first time, Pro Disposal added a $2 monthly recycling fee to customers. It sent out a flier to customers explaining what was happening in China and how costs had increased. The service had previously been part of regular trash pickup. Pro Disposal told customers that if they didn’t want to pay it, they could suspend recycling service and their monthly rate would be lowered by $6.

“Surprisingly, we didn’t have a lot of pushback,” said DePaiva, adding that the overall cost is probably closer to $8 or $9 a month. “We never built in a (recycling) processing fee before. The thought process is that, hopefully, this will be temporary. The thought was China was going to clamp down and then ease up. The financial impact to us was over $25,000 to $30,000. So if you figure that I’m picking up over 10,000 customers, it’s $2 a month per customer.”

Ultimately, he said, “We feel it’s important that people understand the cost associated with it (recycling), and there must be a willingness to support it.”

Rising Sun

A caption on a photo in this story was updated at 6:16 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2018, to reflect that Alpine Waste & Recycling now has the state’s largest recycling plant. Outdated information was provided by Alpine.

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...