Recycling in Greeley takes a long road

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Among Colorado’s 15 most
populous cities, no city’s recycling travels a longer distance to be processed
than Greeley’s.

But despite the distance
and larger headwinds facing the recycling industry, officials say the practice
is still a worthwhile environmental endeavor.

Curbside recycling in
Greeley is carried around 25 miles — give or take, depending on where it’s
picked up in town — to the Larimer County Recycling Center in Fort Collins.

Once there, the recycling
materials go through an initial sort to extract and bale cardboard to be
marketed to buyers, according to information provided by Scott Mercer, Waste
Management of Colorado manager for recycling operations in Northern Colorado.

Bales of plastic bottles prepared to be sold at the Waste Management Denver Materials Recovery Facility. Courtesy Waste Management

The remaining materials
then travel another 55-plus miles south to the Denver material recovery
facility, or MRF, though that’s a distance tread by many other northern
Colorado cities’ recycling as well.

There, Mercer said, the
material is loaded on a conveyor belt, passing through a manual sorting line
for contamination removal before an automated sorting process extracts quality
recyclable material. That material is baled by the ton and prepared for sale.
The rest goes to the landfill.

Of the largest cities in
Colorado, Greeley sits 12th in population. But the Weld County seat’s
relatively isolated geography has it farther from facilities in Fort Collins,
Boulder, Denver, Pueblo or Colorado Springs than any of the other cities in
that top-15 group.

Both of Greeley’s
curbside trash and recycling collectors — nationwide Waste Management and
Evans-local Bunting — take the recyclables they pick up on Greeley-area curbs
to Fort Collins.

In the near-term, and
probably the long-term, that 25ish-mile journey is what it’s likely going to
be, even if it might not be the most efficient use of resources in a business
that’s all about conservation.

It’s essentially always
been that way, actually, even since before Northern Colorado Disposal was sold
and concurrently shut down that company’s Greeley processing facility. Even
that recycling was transported to Fort Collins after an initial sort, according
to Greeley Community Development director Brad Mueller.

“Northern did
limited processing (at the Greeley facility) but bundled it and sent it off,”
Mueller said. “We as a city strongly encourage recycling. But it’s a very
tough time right now to run recycling because the economics of it have turned
upside down.”

Recycling programs have
historically been funded in large part through material sales. But that market
is on its head.

Many national news outlets have cited a 2017 decision by China to no longer accept certain materials, including plastic waste and unsorted paper. That policy went into effect in 2018.

It’s not exclusively a
reduction by China in the amount that nation is purchasing, but that’s a
factor, Mueller said.

Recycling is sorted and filtered on a conveyor belt at Waste Management’s Denver material recovery facility. Courtesy Waste Management

“China’s often cited, and that’s a piece of the pie, but like any giant industry there’s a lot of nuance and detail,” Mueller said. “One big recycling good was newsprint, and newspapers aren’t buying as much newspaper, and it’s not being produced as much.”

Additionally, both
Mueller and Waste Management officials said, is the issue of contamination.

“Contamination is
the biggest challenge facing the recycling industry,” said Mark Snedecor,
Waste Management director of recycling in Colorado, through a representative.
“The global recycling industry is facing challenges of high contamination
in the recycling stream, lower commodity values and rising processing costs.
These conditions make it even more important for residents to focus on putting
the right items in the recycling bin and keeping everything else out.

“By focusing on the
items with market value — those materials that manufacturers want to buy — we
will keep recycling sustainable for the long term.”

Mueller cited glass as
an example. Long thought of as a recyclable good, the tendency for glass to
break and contaminate batches of otherwise quality recycling coupled with its
relatively inefficient reusable nature have effectively eliminated glass from
large-scale recycling efforts.

All that said, both the
city and Waste Management continue to throw their respective support behind
recycling as a practice.

“Recycling is
absolutely worth doing despite the challenges the industry is currently
facing,” Snedecor said. “Recycling preserves valuable natural
resources and creates a multitude of environmental benefits. Using recycled
material saves water and energy and contributes to a cleaner environment.”

Snedecor reported that
Waste Management has invested more than $16.5 million into equipment on the
Front Range MRFs over the last 10 years. The company has also heavily
diversified its buyer profile, he said.

But it’s still 25 miles
from Greeley. And it will be for the foreseeable future unless someone
— public or private — changes policy.

“Greeley did pilot
a drop-off recycling center over on 11th Avenue near the railroad tracks — it’s
currently the site of one of the new skate parks,” Mueller said. “The
city received a grant, contractors operated it, and we had some turnover in
those operators. Finally the last operator closed, saying they couldn’t make
money doing it.

“We explored
running it as a city utility, but long story short, the $150,000 to $200,000 a
year net that it would cost to subsidize it, ultimately council decided that it
was not enough of a community benefit.”

For now, though, Mueller
said, given the current climate, it’s fortunate enough that there’s curbside
pickup in Greeley at all.

“The encouraging
news is local trash providers continue to provide curbside recycling,”
Mueller said. “There are some distant drop-off centers (in Ault, for
example), but to give you an idea of how difficult the economics are for
recycling, Windsor, who has sponsored a drop-off center, has had to limit it to
residents only using it now. It has to be heavily subsidized.”

Cuyler Meade is the public money reporter at the Greeley Tribune. Reach him at 970-392-4487 or cmeade@greeleytribune.com, or follow him on Twitter @CuylerMeade.



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