Summit a county of recycling, composting champs |

Summit a county of recycling, composting champs

Photo: Summit Daily News

SUMMIT COUNTY – Since Summit County opened its Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) in 2006, diversions from the landfill have nearly quadrupled, with several thousand tons of recyclables and organic material being resurrected from the waste stream every year to live on as useful new products.

In 2009, the Summit Resource Allocation Park (SCRAP), formerly known as the dump, shipped 3,492 tons of paper, cardboard, metals, glass, plastic and electronics back into the market. Combine that with several-thousand additional tons of food scraps, wood waste, biosolids and yard waste that’s turned into fertile soil at SCRAP’s High Country Composting Facility, and Summit County achieves a waste-diversion rate of about 22 percent.

“We have a very engaged community, as far as recycling goes,” MRF supervisor Kevin Berg said.

Life after the bin

Waste Management, which provides trash-hauling services to a broad base of local residents and businesses, says about a third of its Summit customers opt for recycling services. In January through July of this year, Summit’s Waste Management customers sent 1,500 tons of material to the company’s recycling facilities in Denver and Grand Junction.

Waste Management accepts “single-stream” recycling, meaning that customers can toss bottles, cans, newspapers and any other recyclables into the same bin. Trailers bring the materials to the processing facility just outside Denver, where they are loaded onto conveyor belts and sorted by hand and machine.

Crews of workers pick out items like plastic grocery bags and Styrofoam that aren’t recycled. Agitators lift up cardboard and paper, as heavier materials like cans and bottles fall below to another belt. An optical sorter takes pictures of materials as they stream by, shooting a burst of air at certain materials to force them off the belt, further dividing the stream. Aluminum is separated from tin and steel through reverse magneticism, forcing cans to jump off the belt and down a chute to containers waiting below.

Once the materials are fully sorted, they’re compressed into large bales, weighing 1,200-1,700 pounds. The bales leave the facility via tractor-trailers or train, heading to processors. Aluminum cans will likely end up as cans once again – on the shelves of grocery stores a mere 60 days after leaving a residential recycling bin. Laundry detergent bottles may eventually become picnic benches, decks or carpet. Milk jugs are turned into fiber fill for ski jackets and low-density soda bottles.

The sorting process is somewhat less complicated at the Summit MRF, operated by Summit County government, since customers do much of the separating before recyclables end up at the facility. Nevertheless, workers must still examine streams of material, checking for contamination, pulling out plastics that don’t belong, making sure paper isn’t mixed in with the cardboard.

Overall, Summit County’s recyclers produce very low levels of contamination. Less than 2 percent of what gets sent to the MRF is material the facility can’t recycle.

“In Summit County, we have really great, devoted recyclers that abide by the guidelines,” said Erin Makowsky, waste reduction coordinator for High Country Conservation Center.

Anyone who has been to one of the local drop-off centers knows that brown glass goes into a different bin than other colors do. That’s because SCRAP can send the brown stuff directly to Coors Brewing Company’s facility, where it commands top dollar to be turned into new brown beer bottles. In 2009, SCRAP shipped 188 tons of brown glass to Coors at $50 per ton. The facility also shipped 594 tons of mixed glass for $20 per ton.

“Coors loves our bottles, because they’re so clean,” Berg said. “And the contamination we do see is just people wanting to recycle more, giving us things we can’t accept.”

Having low levels of contamination and fastidious sorting by the public means less labor is required at the MRF to handle high volumes of material. Only five full-time workers take on all the MRF’s sorting, baling and quality control. And higher levels of purity for individual categories of material translate to higher prices paid by processors down the line.

Keeping the big picture of sustainability in mind, the folks at SCRAP strive to keep the carbon footprint of their materials shipments low by favoring nearby markets: Glass goes to Golden, paper goes to Arizona and cardboard goes to Oklahoma.

“Our goal here is to use domestic markets as much as possible,” Makowsky said. “Aluminum, tin steel – all that stays domestic.”

The composting program is hyper-local. Organic material comes from Summit’s restaurants, school cafeterias, sewage treatment plants, logging projects and the Summit County Commons to turn into fertile soil amendments used by local residents and businesses.

Overall, Berg says Summit County has great potential to continue to increase its waste-diversion rates, with both composting and recycling playing a role.

“It’s not trash,” Berg said last week, looking in the direction of the landfill. “There are resources in that pile of stuff – resources that have been extracted, logged, shipped and processed. Why not use them?”

SDN reporter Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or

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