Conflicting outlooks exist for the future of local recycling culture

While recycling activism is on an upward trend nationwide, it is proving to be a difficult task to implement recycling services locally and gain community involvement even though the majority of Pueblo residents support the movement.

The 2010 Direction Finder Survey conducted by the City of Pueblo found that 40 percent of respondents were very supportive of a city funded and operated recycling center and 70 percent said they would support and participate in drop off centers for household recyclables.

However, 44 percent said they would not be willing to pay any type of fee to fund such a center and 53 percent said they do not currently use any recycling services located in Pueblo.

The 2014 survey increased 5 percent from the one four years prior. In 2014, 75 percent of residents responded that they would support and participate in drop off centers for household recyclables and the respondents listed a recycling drop off center as the third overall most important capital improvement that should be made right behind street and maintenance repair and police vehicle and equipment replacement.

In the midst of those surveys, however, locals were working to make recycling more accessible.

“Northern Colorado seems to do a much better job of recycling than Southern Colorado. There are more communities . . . the residents/political climate is such that is really supports diversion.” – Marjorie Griek, executive director, Colorado Association for Recycling

“People in Bessemer walked to the mill from home for work every day. We rinsed our glass bottles and put them back out for the milkman. We patched torn clothing and re-soled our shoes. We rode electric street trolleys. We shared tools with our neighbors and entertainment was mostly outdoors or over a card table. We were already environmentally friendly. We just need to turn around,” Justin Parker of We Recycle Cooperation LLC said.

In a metal warehouse located in Pueblo West, Parker and his team at We Recycle sort recyclables by hand and put them in the proper bales to be shipped and constructed into reusable products. Although their long hours are helping make southern Colorado greener, they are working to educate and improve the local environment and are struggling financially. “Every day is a challenge to get all of the recycling picked up, sorted, baled, and shipped. It is a challenge to make payroll and pay bills,” Parker said.

Recycling, Remanufacturing, and Reuse businesses account for the employment of about 2.7 percent of jobs in the state and generate a direct monetary impact of around $14.7 billion according to a 2014 Economic Study of Recycling in Colorado prepared for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

About 2,500 households in Pueblo use We Recycle services, according to Parker. Each week around 400 people drop off their recyclables at the We Recycle center and more recyclables are picked up from 1,400 to 1,500 homes with the We Recycle curbside recycling membership service totaling the center processing to about 3,000 bags of single-stream recycling every week.

Even with We Recycle’s flexible membership plans and various drop off locations at places like Solar Roast Coffee and Habitat for Humanity as well as in neighboring towns such as Westcliffe, Beulah, and Colorado City; resources such as The Pueblo Recycle Hotline that operates Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and the Pueblo Area Recycling Guide produced quarterly and distributed to local libraries, coffee shops, schools and businesses provided by the Pueblo City-County Health Department’s Environmental Coordinator, Southern Colorado is not on the same playing field as Northern when it comes to recycling.

“Northern Colorado seems to do a much better job of recycling than Southern Colorado. There are more communities . . . the residents/political climate is such that is really supports diversion,” said Marjorie Griek, the executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling.

Multiple project and programs have been and are currently in the works to boost Pueblo and Southern Colorado’s recycling efforts overall.

“Data shows nationally recycling and green initiatives are trending upward and the public’s awareness of these issues is increasing. The trend is expected to continue in the coming years nationally as well as in Pueblo,” said Sarah Joseph, the public information officer for the Pueblo City-County Health Department.

But Parker has a much different outlook.

“I think the mindset will get worse. We’ll produce more trash, we’ll start double-bagging our Styrofoam take-out containers, we’ll dig another landfill . . . somebody will convince us to take Denver’s trash, then somebody will convince us to build a nuclear/hazardous waste dumpsite,” Parker said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

In 2013, We Recycle was awarded $293,086 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity Fund to fund a project titled the Southern Colorado Hub and Spoke Cooperation.

Eric Heyboer, the Recycling Grant Program Administrator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment explained that the grant is “the state’s method of investing in new recycling infrastructure to reduce the amount of materials that end up in our landfills.”

The department has additionally contributed a recycling drop off center rebate to another local Pueblo recycling company, C&C Disposal.

With the grant, We Recycle partnered with five separate organizations to increase recycling efforts and resources all across southern Colorado.

“We Recycle was the lead on the project, but received less than half of the total funding,” Parker said.

With the money, they did purchase a three-conveyor sort system, a trailer to pick up the bales of recyclables and were able to make improvements in their operation warehouse.

“Our goal for our piece was to prove we could sort recycling without building a multi-million dollar material recovery facility. We could do it with a simpler system that used manpower instead of horsepower,” he explained.

Lack of popularity of recycling is partially due to the fees associated with it as found by the data from the 2010 Direction Finder survey.

Justin Parker of the We Recycle Cooperation LLC stands among bales of recyclables that he and his team sorted at their metal warehouse location in Pueblo West. Photo by Kara Mason

“Recycling is cheaper than trash, but most people will continue paying for trash and recycling is an additional expense. Almost every business would save money by recycling, but oftentimes the trash cost is such an insignificant part of the budget that those savings are not a game changer,” Parker said.

We Recycle subcontracts with Waste Connections of Pueblo an every other week curbside service for its members that is closer to the same cost as “trash-only” but is still slightly more expensive.

“We offer discounted programs for local schools every year in hopes of building a culture of recycling and an eco-mindset in the next generation. Some schools take advantage, but most do not,” he said.

In addition to the We Recycle grant project, the Pueblo City-County Health Department’s environmental coordinator has implemented several programs and projects to help improve Pueblo’s recycling culture as well.

Ongoing services such as the Pueblo Recycle Hotline and the Pueblo Area Recycling Guide provide a consistent way for locals to obtain information and education on recycling.

The environmental coordinator receives about 25 calls a week with two or three requests for information about the next recycling drop off event on the hotline and the recycling guide produced every three to four months reaches roughly 8,000 people annually.

“Education presentations about recycling and litter prevention are made to classrooms, youth groups and at public fairs, reaching 2,500 people per year,” Joseph said.

This year the environmental coordinator will be holding six separate city and county neighborhood cleanups and recycling some materials gathered from the cleanups such as scrap metals, tires and yard waste.

Additionally, the Enactus club at Colorado State University-Pueblo is implementing campuswide recycling initiatives and held a recycling week before the student’s Thanksgiving break called “Pack for the Planet” which featured events such as meatless Monday, upcycling events, and trash sculptures to promote recycling on campus.

“We noticed that recycling on campus was not up to par. Students did not know we had a recycling program and we wanted to start making a positive environmental impact,” explained Antonio Huerta, who has been an Enactus club member for three years.

Huerta said the club hopes it is a project that will be continued on the campus through future students.

“There is not a one size fits all approach to recycling . . . it all depends on the needs and expectations of the residents of that particular town and finding a system that works best for them,” Heyboer said.

Griek explained that improving recycling culture in places where it is not prominent will take three things: “Leaders who are willing to lead and take some heat regarding changing the way things are; a strong, vibrant and persistent grassroots movement to light a fire under leadership; city personnel that develop diversion programs for all city buildings/employees as a way to lead and guide others in the community.”

Additionally, finding methods to decrease waste and create end-use applications are needed. Parker feels that there is a variety of superior ways to handle the trash rather than “putting it into a hole in the ground.”