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Dee Hostetler stands amid bales of plastic at the Clean Valley Recycling headquarters in Swink. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

SWINK — Dee Hostetler walks through the quiet, cavernous brick building past pallets stacked high with translucent, kaleidoscopic bales of recycled plastic that filter the morning light like stained glass.

The hollowed-out remains of this former Holly Sugar factory, all 27,000 square feet of it, stands just a block off the short strand of U.S. 50 that connects Rocky Ford to Swink, though the towering, dormant smokestack remains visible for miles. It’s a historic landmark, a reminder of days when sugar beets helped fuel the local economy. It was shut down in 1959, hosted a few assorted tenants and finally slipped into silent obsolescence.

Now it stands as a monument to recycling.

Clean Valley Recycling, the nonprofit launched by Hostetler and a handful of others seven years ago, has taken on a mission that can be daunting in a rural community of widely dispersed population and plentiful landfill space. But it has sprung from grassroots and gained momentum for both its message and its services, headquartered in this massive structure that has been repurposed since its agricultural heyday.

The old Holly Sugar factory in Swink, which closed down in 1959, has been resurrected as the nonprofit Clean Valley Recycling after sitting dormant for years. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

The organization now offers curbside pickup of household recyclables in three towns, picks up cardboard from about 65 businesses in the region and tends a handful of drop-off stations in the area. And in its spacious base of operations, it has expanded its scope to take everything from books to building materials — and even regionally specific items like “triple-rinsed ag chemical jugs” — while also providing educational resources for the community.

For nearly three decades, Hostetler worked as a registered nurse, most recently at Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center.  She cut back to part-time as Clean Valley got off the ground. Earlier this summer, she decided to devote full time to the demands of the recycling effort.

“It’s been my life since 2011,” she says. “Environmental issues have always been important to me. Since I live in a rural area, I wanted to help make rural America more aware of environmental issues and give them the opportunity to recycle like people in the city.”

MORE: Recycling in Colorado is tedious, cost-prohibitive, voluntary — and evolving

Rural recycling, by the numbers

That opportunity, in numbers: Clean Valley last year diverted 522 tons (the number has increased every year they’ve been in operation) of household recyclables from landfills. It’s a thin slice of the roughly 100,000 tons diverted statewide outside the Front Range, but still a sizeable contribution, says Wolf Kray, environmental protection specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“If you look at the population of that area, it’s significant,” Kray says. “It’s definitely more of a challenge for rural communities. It’s a wider area and less material generated. So there are higher costs when you think about transportation.”

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

Hostetler, who runs the operation as general manager, found her passion for recycling initially spurred by concern that while locals could find bins around town to divert metal, cans, glass bottles and paper from the landfill, nobody took cardboard or plastic. She wanted to jump into the void, but the operation started small, with an organizational meeting of about 30 people in La Junta’s city hall.

They partnered with a group out of Pueblo that would accept their plastic, so Clean Valley Recycling, as they named themselves after their Lower Arkansas River valley roots, essentially served as a collection point, a spoke in the regional hub-and-spoke model for recycling operations. Instead of collection containers, they distributed 40-gallon bags. Consumers could pay $3 each for Clean Valley to accept and recycle the contents.

“Because without money,” Hostetler says, “you can’t be sustainable.”

Getting the community on board

It also helps to have community buy-in. Hostetler saw an avenue to get young people involved in the effort, while pumping $1 of every $3 bag of plastic back into schools and community nonprofits.

The community-minded approach has given Clean Valley traction, but recycling can still be a hard sell in rural areas.

“I would say there’s some things that are different than cities, but some are the same,” Hostetler says. “People see how much we’re throwing away, and think this is crazy, it’s not sustainable. They realize a lot of what they’re throwing away can be reused and recycled. In cities, landfill space is more of a limiting factor, with high landfill fees.

“We have unlimited space for landfills out here,” she adds. “When we educate the public, we can’t use that argument. They tell us we have space for 300 years of landfills. What is a good argument for rural folks is that landfills are expensive to build, or close down, with lots of rules and regulations.”

She sees how locals push back when you start talking about rules and regulations. So Clean Valley makes sure to emphasize that recycling efforts are purely voluntary. After seven years in business, the organization has been woven into the fabric of the community.

“I think it’s becoming a fixture,” says Gary Cranson, a retired tech worker who has served on the nonprofit’s board for the last two years. “Participation is kind of in dribs and drabs. I don’t know what percentage people recycle anything. But I think that’s our main strategy — to be persistent and people will come around over time.”

The operation hummed along for about a year, and actually began to build up some cash reserves. That’s when Hostetler realized that it was time to look for a local site where they could process their own materials — separate the various types of plastic and other recyclables, compact them into bales and store them, sometimes for as long as a year, until they had accrued enough to call in a semi-trailer to haul them  away.

The search for a new site took a long time, she recalls, but she “lucked out” in realizing that the old sugar factory, a sprawling warehouse that had sat empty for years — except for some resident bats that occasionally still make their presence known — might be available. She contacted the owners, Gary and Eric Hanagan of Hanagan Farms, and told them her plans. Gary Hanagan invited her to pay a visit.

“Right away,” she says, “I knew this was perfect.”

Clean Valley Recycling even gives old books a second chance. Local farmers donate the boxes, which reflect the area’s famous agricultural roots. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

The central location and unmistakable visibility made a good case for sinking organizational roots here. The size provided plenty of room for processing and storage. And the rent was a sweetheart deal that reflected the owner’s belief in the mission.

Clean Valley grew slowly but steadily. When it acquired a truck, it  hired a one-day-a-week driver to do the route. Like that, the organization had an employee. Then another. And another.

“Things just slowly kept getting bigger,” Hostetler says. “It never really exploded, but it grew gradually, so we had time to adapt. Then we bought a second truck, and now we have five employees. Some are retired people who are not ready to retire. They believe in the mission.”

Also key to Clean Valley’s success: the CDPHE has supported the organization with grants that have enabled it to buy equipment, like the $40,000 baler it never could have afforded otherwise. In 2007, the state legislature passed he Resource Recycling Economic Opportunity Act, which created a vehicle to help overcome the challenges of getting recycling operations off the ground. About 90 percent of it’s $3.5 million budget goes toward grants like the ones that lifted Clean Valley to the next level.

“I feel no matter what county or community, you’ll always find a cohort that’s super passionate about environmental issues, especially recycling,” says Eric Heyboer, the recycling grant administrator. “It’s one of the most tangible ways an everyday person can do something to help protect environment — do something and feel like they’re making a difference. It comes back to recycling as a place to start those conversations.”

Challenges from home and abroad

He also notes that the difficulties of achieving sustainability in recycling can come from both local barriers — like political will or abundant landfill space — as well as international issues as far away as China, a key landing spot for many U.S. recyclables that recently has imposed more hard-to-meet standards.

There are other nonprofits in the recycling marketplace Heyboer says, but relatively few that are “the only game in town” like Clean Valley.

“It’s nonprofits like Dee’s that educate the community and drum up excitement for recycling on a wider scale,” he says. “They very much have a role. How big? It depends on where they are in the state. Colorado is unique because the majority of communities use private hauler systems. Some offer recycling, some don’t. Some are nonprofit, some not. They all try to find their niche in the market.”

The interior of the old sugar factory is nothing fancy — initially, volunteers had to use an outhouse before bathroom facilities were installed. One half of the rectangular building is lined with those pallets of compacted materials that already have been sorted by volunteers.

On the other side of the building, tables lined with books, many of them in donated Rocky Ford cantaloupe boxes, give the volumes one last chance at a useful life. Next to that, recyclable paint awaits transport to a statewide nonprofit. Electronics fill another section, spilling into the building materials area, where locals can buy used. There are even used skylights from when the nearby Walmart installed a new roof.

Every year, the organization holds a barn dance — there’s plenty of room amid the recyclables — to raise money. And those bats? Some local Eagle Scouts have taken on the project of moving them to more appropriate quarters outside the building.

About three years ago, Rocky Ford officials approached Clean Valley about shifting its recycling efforts from collections bins to curbside pickup. Word spread, and about a year ago, La Junta came on board as well as Swink. The service seemed to add credibility not only to the recycling program, but to the need to pay for it.

MORE: Rural southeast Colorado loved its landfills. After a health department deal, some will finally close

Now, Clean Valley serves about 127 homes in La Junta, 75 in Rocky Ford and 10 in Swink. Rocky Ford puts the $6.50 monthly charge on customers’ utility bills, and keeps 50 cents for administrative costs, making the whole process easier both for Clean Valley and its customers. Hostetler says she approached Swink and La Junta about similar arrangements, but they so far have declined.

Clean Valley identified the big generators of cardboard waste in the area and initially got seven businesses to sign up for collection. Now, about 65 businesses have signed up — “and that’s just our cardboard route,” Hostetler says. The truck route winds through Fowler, Ordway, Las Animas and Lamar. The organization also has taken the program to prisons and schools, which generate large amounts of cardboard and plastic waste. Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, Clean Valley heads west up U.S. 50 to Fowler, where it collects about 800 pounds of plastics, metals, cardboard, glass and paper. It’s the only avenue for recycling in town.

“What I’ve noticed is people really want to recycle, they know it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “They want it to be convenient and they want it to be free. We’re trying to be as convenient as possible, and as cheap as possible.”

Key to success: Cover costs

As the organization expands — about half its expenses these days are payroll — it makes sure to cover costs. For the curbside service, it did a cost analysis to arrive at its rate. And customers can still drop off materials at the sugar factory. The $3 rate for plastics has held firm. Electronics, except for things like computer towers and cell phones, get charged by the pound, from 20 to 40 cents, depending on the material. But most of the drop-off is free.

Each recyclable is essentially a commodity, and prices fluctuate with the market. These days, about two semi-loads of materials go out each month, with each recyclable heading for a different destination. Cardboard and paper head for Oklahoma — cardboard to Lawton, paper to Muskogee, where it’s converted to tissue paper. Newspaper stays in Colorado and goes to Penrose, where it’s turned into insulation. Steel and aluminum go to local metal recyclers.

Plastic to her left, paper to her right, Dee Hostetler surveys the 27,000 square feet of the former Holly Sugar factory, now a monument to rural recycling. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Plastics, sorted by five different categories, sometimes take a year before there’s enough to fill a semi in this relatively sparsely populated area of southeast Colorado. And some of those numbered categories may have a negative value — meaning they cost more to process than they’re worth on the market.

But Hostetler has guided Clean Valley into sustainability.

“Financially, we’re pretty stable,” she says. “We still have to watch expenses closely. Part of the reason why we’re stable is we rely on volunteer help. And luckily, we have some great volunteers. Our landlords are big community people and keep the rent very, very reasonable.”

Hostetler says she hopes to partner with more towns and counties in the region, once they’re satisfied that the operation is viable.

“We had to prove we’re sustainable before we can expect them to sign on with us,” she says. “We’re ready.”

If business gets too good, she jokes, they might even have to rethink the sugar factory.

“Believe it or not,” Hostetler says, “27,000 square feet isn’t big enough.”

Rising Sun

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...