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End of GOALZERO recycling program exacerbates problem 

Missed GOAL

click to enlarge Colorado Association for Recycling members would like to see a mandatory recycling initiative introduced in the Springs. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Colorado Association for Recycling members would like to see a mandatory recycling initiative introduced in the Springs.

As a state that prides itself on fitting into every "green" category, Colorado's recycling game sure seems lackluster. A recent report by Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group found that Coloradans recycle only about 12 percent of their waste compared to the national average of 34 percent. While Colorado Springs does not track its recycling, it was thought to have among the lowest recycling rates in the state.

Now, with the impending closure of GOALZERO, which provided a free drop-off point for most recyclable materials — including plastics, aluminum, paper and cardboard — Colorado Springs will only have one zero-cost location where residents can recycle: the Household Hazardous Waste Facility for El Paso County at 3255 Akers Drive, about 10.5 miles (or a 20-minute drive) from downtown, northeast beyond North Powers Boulevard.

GOALZERO has operated as a program of Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado. The program started as a for-profit venture but switched to a nonprofit less than a year ago. Declining revenues are forcing its May 25 closure.

"We, as a community, need to take this more seriously," Stacy Poore, Care and Share chief operating officer, says. "We're only recycling or diverting in Colorado Springs about 8 to 10 percent of our waste. And that's a bit embarrassing because it doesn't mean we're being careful stewards of our resources. We have to have more conversations about recycling. We have to have more conversations about why we should do it."

On the state level, it appears those conversations are beginning. In 2017, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment set statewide recycling goals for the first time, shooting to hit the national average by 2026 and build up to 45 percent diversion by 2036.

But many challenges stand in the way of those goals.

Part of what doomed GOALZERO was a decision overseas. Last September, China's ban on 24 varieties of solid waste imports, which include types of plastic and unsorted paper, went into effect. And that ban was widened on April 20 with the addition of "dozens more types of recyclable materials, including steel waste, used auto parts and old ships," according to CNN.

In 2016, scrap and waste was the sixth-largest U.S. export to China.

"For the longest time, they've taken all kinds of material," Poore says. "They've taken things that didn't necessarily have a huge value in them, but they are being much more selective about what they're taking, much more selective about the quality of material, so they're taking less of it."

GOALZERO's recycling run was short-lived. As reported in the Colorado Springs Business Journal, GOALZERO was getting $300 a ton for its truckloads of cardboard. That number dropped to $90 in April.

According to Poore, there has been a 60 percent decline in the revenue generated from recyclable materials. Because of China's increased list of banned items, there's little hope for improvement, which led to the decision to shut down GOALZERO.

"[It was] absolutely disappointing, and very disappointing for the community in so many ways," Poore said. "This program has really been embraced by fee-for-service customers, by free drop-off customers and by volunteers. It's certainly been disappointing internally and externally."

Laurie Johnson, the executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling, is hopeful for a future in Colorado Springs in which there is some form of mandatory recycling, or a pay-as-you-throw program, in which it's more expensive to dispose of trash than recycle it.

"We are just jumping in with mandatory recycling," Johnson says. "That's the vision at the end of the tunnel, that's where we want to get."

The first step in that long process is an effort to require businesses in town to recycle their cardboard, an idea that has been floated by City Council members.

The future for recycling, both in-state and nationally, remains uncertain. On the national challenge, Johnson hopes countries in Southeast Asia will accept recyclables, at least in the short term. On the local end, she hopes to educate people about recycling and see more efforts among citizens to be green. (Ultimately, more local end-users of recycled materials would be a big step forward.)

The city, however, won't be taking the lead on a recycling program. Ryan Trujillo, who's in charge of the city's Office of Innovation and Sustainability, says there are no discussions within the city about adding any free-recycling options, since trash disposal has long been a private service in our area.

Nevertheless, Trujillo said the city does support Peak Alliance for a Sustainable Future, a 20-year regional sustainability plan for El Paso and Teller counties that was adopted six years ago. The plan covers a wide variety of sustainability efforts, but for materials management and procurement the report states, "The more efficiently we purchase and use materials, the less we throw away and the less we have to recycle, reuse, and repurchase."

He also thinks that citizens are becoming more green. "There's a lot of interest in recycling," he says. "From my perspective, in general, I think people are becoming aware and want to do the right thing when it comes to recycling."

But with only one free recycling drop-spot (a remote destination for three-fourths of city residents), that "right thing" currently includes paying extra for recycling from residential trash removal providers; Bestway's current rate, for example, is an additional $5.15 a month. Some businesses have proven they can actually save money by diverting waste, thereby requiring fewer trash pickups (see our reporting on proposed mandatory recycling, Jan. 3, 2018). It's a sign of hope for meaningful change, if there's a will for it.

Trujillo added that city government, at least, does recycle. "A lot of what we're trying to do in the city is to lead by example."

Short of a mandate, that seemingly will have to suffice.

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