Reducing, Recycling, Repurposing + Retrofitting Saves Local Resources

 Photos by Cat Mayer

Photos by Cat Mayer

Trash is fun,” says Mesa County Solid Waste and Sustainability Division Director Barrett Jensen.

If he’s serious, Jensen may be in heaven, as the county landfill takes in around 600 tons of trash each day it operates.

“That is a large amount for a community of this size,” Jensen says. Grand Valley residents throw away an average of 6.7 pounds per person each day, compared to the national average of 4.5 pounds. Over 149,000 people live in the 3,341-square-mile county and its communities. Last year the landfill, located in Grand Junction, took in 176,000 tons of trash — the most of any landfill on the Western Slope.

“I think it’s a cultural thing,” Jensen says of why county residents toss so much in the trash. “We live in a society where it’s thought to be OK to throw everything away. When you look at what we buy, there is a lot of waste, and much of it ends up here.”

Jensen also says a landfill that takes in a lot of waste reflects the local economy: Business growth equals more trash.

The Mesa County Landfill accepts municipal, construction and demolition waste, asbestos, and contaminated soils.

Landfills today are not just dumps, Jensen says. For instance, all landfills must place trash in lined pits to help protect groundwater. Many hazardous, electronic, and other wastes are unacceptable. Organic composting, recycling, household hazardous waste disposal are offered, and four transfer stations are also operated.

The county runs the landfill as an enterprise fund — no general fund tax money is involved. Fees charged for each load of trash, electronics and hazardous wastes, compost sales, and grants are the main funding sources.

 Mesa County Landfill’s campus includes dedicated composting facilities. Specialized equipment breaks down compostable waste like spoiled tree fruit, tree limbs, and leaves into a soil amendment known throughout the Grand Valley as “Mesa Magic.” It’s sold at the landfill commercially and local garden centers.

Mesa County Landfill’s campus includes dedicated composting facilities. Specialized equipment breaks down compostable waste like spoiled tree fruit, tree limbs, and leaves into a soil amendment known throughout the Grand Valley as “Mesa Magic.” It’s sold at the landfill commercially and local garden centers.

When the landfill was permitted by state health officials, it was limited to 1.2 million cubic yards of trash, Jensen says. “That’s why we constantly compact the piles,” he adds. The landfill uses GPS technology in its compactors and bulldozers to improve its compaction rate and save on fuel and energy costs.

The landfill began operations in 1986 on some 1,500 acres of former Bureau of Land Management property purchased by the county. At the time, it was projected to last around 60 years. Today, it has used about 60 acres of an approximate 127-acre footprint and has about 24 years left under regulatory limits. The county wants to extend its use as long as possible by reducing the amount of trash it accumulates. “That’s why we push recycling, composting, and hazardous waste disposal,” Jensen says.

Extending the life of the landfill saves county taxpayers money as well, he notes. Getting a new landfill site permitted is a long and expensive process — it can take 10-15 years to get a landfill permit.

Shipping the county’s trash elsewhere is prohibitively expensive, another reason residents are urged not to throw away so much trash.

Along those lines, the landfill received an $86,864 state grant for a regional waste diversion study, focused on improved waste reduction and diversion efforts in Mesa, Delta, Gunnison, and Montrose counties.

As part of the study, the landfill held the first of two six-day waste audits in June. Landfill staff and volunteers sorted through 600 pounds of trash daily to identify what is being thrown out and how much could be recycled or composted.

“It gets pretty nasty, but we get really good data,” Jensen says. “It should help us make better decisions into the future. We’re trying to lead the way.” Results of the study are expected in early 2019.

Efforts to find creative ways to reduce and reuse waste materials resulted in a 2017 innovation award from the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association. The landfill became the first in Colorado to use paint collected at its hazardous household waste facility, mixed with a commercial spray slurry, to cover each day’s accumulated waste. This reduces odors and keeps wind from blowing trash around and off the site. “I liken it to chocolate sauce you put on ice cream,” Jensen says. “The solution biodegrades over time.”

In 2016, the on-site hazardous household waste facility provided approximately 3,800 gallons of waste latex paint for this use. Repurposing the paint instead of shipping it off-site for recycling or disposal saved about $11,300 in disposal fees, Jensen adds.

Smart Recycling

Started as a community-based, grassroots program 13 years ago, Curbside Recycling Indefinitely (CRI) now employs 14 people, most of whom are involved in collecting, processing, and shipping recyclables.

 CRI received a state grant to purchase a new residential curbside collection trailer. The new trailer allows them to serve an additional 100 customers, and divert 58,500 pounds of recyclables from the Mesa County Landfill.

CRI received a state grant to purchase a new residential curbside collection trailer. The new trailer allows them to serve an additional 100 customers, and divert 58,500 pounds of recyclables from the Mesa County Landfill.

Merissa Snyder, community outreach coordinator, says CRI works with other groups in the Grand Valley that support recycling. They are the contracted provider of curbside recycling in Grand Junction and annexed areas.

CRI serves about a quarter of the city, and between 160-200 vehicles drop off their recyclables daily.

Those numbers may soon grow, following CRI’s award of a $21,441.50 state grant to buy a new residential curbside collection trailer. That will allow another 100 customers to be served, diverting over 58,500 pounds of material monthly from the landfill. The company also plans to hire an additional full-time employee.

The recycling industry is in a kind of limbo following China’s recent decision to ban 24 types of solid waste and move in a more aggressive antipollution direction. Since 1992, China had imported about 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste for recycling. Nearly 4,000 shipping containers of plastic recyclables went from the U.S. to Chinese recycling plants daily. Recent research estimates 111 million tons of plastic waste will have to go into landfills by 2030, due to China’s action.

CRI has so far escaped the effects of this change, since they ship their recyclables to domestic markets for processing.

“But we still have to deal with the lower prices” caused by the industry-wide issue, Snyder notes.

Snyder credits Grand Junction customers for being well-informed on the need for recycling and how to recycle. A “multi-stream” recycling company, CRI requires customers to sort their items, which keeps the company’s contamination rate very low and makes its recyclables more appealing to domestic mills.

Waste haulers usually offer “single-stream” recycling as a free incentive to attract customers. In this model items are not presorted, which often leads to non-recyclable items being added to bins and results in a more polluted product.

 CRI has seen the amount of recyclable corrugated cardboard increase as consumers buy more products online.

CRI has seen the amount of recyclable corrugated cardboard increase as consumers buy more products online.

“There are not very many multi-stream programs in America, but we’re very happy with how it’s worked for us,” Snyder says.

Snyder says most water bottles are recycled into polyester, fleece, and carpeting. Other plastics are turned into items like plastic picnic tables. Most plastics have only one or two more lifetimes, she adds.

Metal containers, like soup cans, can be recycled many times into steel sheeting and cut to use for various items. Aluminum cans can be made into cans, siding, window frames, and other products. “Most of ours goes to an Alcoa mill in Tennessee,” Snyder says.

Paper goes to several mills and can be turned into chipboard, toilet paper, and other products.

Additionally, CRI gives surgical materials from Community Hospital to a non-profit group in Rifle that produces reusable cloth shopping bags from used material.

Energy Efficiency = Savings for Schools

For Mesa County Valley School District 51, recycling and energy efficiency helped avoid $1.7 million in utility costs in fiscal year 2016-17. In the last 10 years, the district has saved more than $11 million in utility costs.

When Energy Conservation Manager Eric Anderson began his job in 2007, the district

spent $4.2 million on utilities. Now, that amount is $2.9 million. “We are now one of — if not the most — energy-efficient large school districts in Colorado,” he says.

A 2009 energy audit led to several energy-efficiency projects in district buildings. Xcel Energy rebates, energy performance contracting through the Colorado Governor’s Office, and utility savings paid for the projects, ranging from getting more efficient boilers to swapping old bulbs for LED lighting. “As a result, we’re using 35 percent less energy than we were when we started,” Anderson notes.

In 2014, a solar community garden began producing 2 megawatts of electricity daily on district land in Pear Park. The district has a 40 percent share in the garden, plus some 17,000 solar panels on buildings and on the ground. Solar makes up a quarter of the district’s energy portfolio.

Other projects include worm-based composting at R-5 High School, metal recycling drives at Redlands and Mt. Garfield middle schools, a zero-waste project in the Bookcliff Middle School cafeteria, and a wind turbine at the Career Center. In addition, Fruita Monument High School’s agriculture program cleaned out old shop metal for a rebate from Pacific Recycling, and Central High School was recently named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Anderson hopes to increase the district-wide recycling rate to 50 percent, partly by getting students and staff to do more recycling in school kitchens and at Stocker Stadium.

All of these efforts are required to be cost effective, Anderson says. “Very, very little capital outlay dollars were used on any of the projects.”

The district is not alone in seeking solutions that are both environmentally and financially sound. Fortunately, all these local efforts are showing how sustainability can make good sense all around.

Mike McKibbinFeature, Land+Water