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How bad are Coloradans at recycling? Chaffee County contractor closed its free sites over bad actors, slim profits

Angel of Shavano closes this week, leaving locals to pay waste haulers for curbside recycling if they want to keep the service

Angel of Shavano Recycling tried to use signs and messages on its Facebook page to guide Chaffee County residents how to protect the recycling stream. The warnings intensified last spring, when coronavirus fears made it difficult for employees to sort things that are not recyclable, like plastic grocery bags, from things that are, like milk and water bottles, and the company had to dump entire trailers of contaminated recyclables. The company will end its contract with the county on April 8, 2021, after 15 years. (Provided by Angel of Shavano Recycling)
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Angel of Shavano Recycling spent 15 years sifting through Chaffee County’s trash collecting its treasures — plastics, cardboard, paper, newspaper, tin and aluminum. But slim profits and bad behavior by customers led the owner, Mickey Barry, to close the gates on the four free community recycling sites. 

“In the recycling industry the drop sites have gotten so abused that it’s been more work than profit,” he said. 

Barry had seen more and more recyclables strewn on the ground instead of inside bins, and even toilets and appliances left at drop sites. So he’s shutting down Angel of Shavano and moving on to a job he said is better for his family.

The Poncha Springs-based company’s service will end on Thursday, April 8. Barry’s announcement caught Chaffee County government officials off guard and wondering what to do about picking up the company’s work. Angel of Shavano collected 4 million pounds of recyclables just last year.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

In a statement, Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt said, “We thank the Barry family for their perseverance through several years of these conditions and wish them well in the future.” 

However, this does not spell the end of recycling for the county’s rural community. Instead, the government quickly turned to commercial trash haulers — Chaffee County Waste and Waste Management — as alternatives.

Residents and commercial accounts will be able to pay for curbside pickup of recycling by the two companies. According to Felt, this is not a drastic financial change from the previously free drop site service, which was, in fact, subsidized by county and municipal budgets.

“They have some good options,” Felt said. “They’re not maybe going to be able to address every aspect of this to everyone’s satisfaction, but basically, any resident in Chaffee County, I think, should be able to sign up for single-stream curbside recycling.”

Downtown Salida is filling up with remote workers, retirees and tourism industry employees, creating a thriving economy. (Michael Booth, The Colorado Sun, April 2, 2021)

Chaffee County’s rural setting can make it less profitable to run a recycling program because of its smaller economy of scale. For instance, Chaffee County Waste just added biweekly curbside recycling this January. 

However, Felt noted the environmental benefits of keeping recycling as an option. Furthermore, these programs stop unnecessary waste from entering landfills. 

Chaffee County Finance Director Dan Short said the county’s landfill has around 92 years of capacity remaining, based on current dumping and recycling rates. Recycling programs help extend that life span by keeping reusable materials out. A longer life for the landfill — off U.S. 285 just outside Salida — means less trouble for the county government and community.

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“I cannot imagine what it’d be like to be county commissioner and try to locate a new 100-acre landfill in Chaffee County,” Felt said. “That would be just kind of the worst duty you could draw.”

While continuing to monitor the new plan, the county government is looking at results of a recent waste diversion study to fine-tune future programs to get as much trash recycled as possible.

“You hate to see the perfectly workable little kid’s bike in the metal pile, when you know there are little kids out there who’d love to have a bike,” Felt said.

Colorado’s recycling rate — also known as the municipal solid waste diversion rate — fell to 15.9% in 2019 from 17.2% in 2018. Overall, 850,000 tons of materials were recycled by the 165 facilities in Colorado in 2019, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

International market forces have made it tougher for recyclers to turn a profit in recent years.

The U.S. had long exported a significant amount of its recyclable waste to China. Starting in 2018, however, China rolled out Operation National Sword. The program raised quality standards and contamination limits on recyclable waste imports, meaning some lower quality plastics are no longer accepted. 

For recyclers, that means declining prices for some recyclables and less profit.

“The big change, of course, was when China quit taking our recyclables,” Felt said. “That just seemed to be kind of the beginning of a lot of challenges, both locally and just generally.”


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