Contaminated recyclables pose problem for Larimer County, CSU

Ty Betts

A plastic bottle recycled in Larimer County will likely end up in the stockpile of Denver’s recycling center. Director of Solid Waste for Larimer County Stephen Gillett said he is unsure if any of these materials will actually be repurposed.

“We have not told them they can landfill these materials,” Gillet said. “We’re still hopeful something is going to happen, but I don’t know if that’s a good hope seeing what’s happening in the world.”

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The recycling industry depends on buyers who want to use recyclable material for their products but Gillett said the market for these materials is at an all-time low with part of the problem being contamination.

Contaminated recyclables, meaning they are either dirty or unable to be processed at the Larimer County facility, are currently increasing in frequency and now make up more than 10 percent of the recyclables the landfill processes, Gillet said. The recycle stream at Colorado State University currently has a contamination rate of around 5 percent, said Sheela Backen, integrated solid waste program manager for CSU. 

To reduce the contamination in Larimer County, Gillet said he wants to focus on educating the public on how to recycle right.

“People want to recycle. They have a belief that everything is recyclable, so they put everything into the recycle bin,” Gillet said.

This “wish-cycling”, as Gillet described it, is ultimately leading to a contaminated recycle stream with certain glass and plastic types entering the facility unable to be processed and products that are too dirty to accept.

“Cardboard is highly recyclable,” Gillet said. “But if it has food on it — i.e. a pizza carton that has cheese stuck on it — by the time it gets to a paper mill three months later, it has started to decompose and attract rodents.”

Backen said there are ways people on campus can reduce contamination of recyclables before they reach the Larimer County Recycle Center

“They need to empty their bottle before they put it into the recycle bin and they need to take lids off of their coffee cup and make sure the liquid is all out,” Backen said.

Part of the need for this education for smarter recycling in Larimer County is to conform to standards with the rest of the industry and appeal to buyers.

“Recycle markets have always been like a roller coaster ride with up and downs,” Gillet said. “Well this time, the down ride is hitting all-time new record lows.”

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Last year, Gillet said partially contaminated recyclables were still processed because they could eventually be sent out of the country to China. This has since changed.

An article by Resource Recycling shows that as of March 1, China reduced the amount of contamination they will accept from 1.5 percent to a 0.5 percent contamination rate. This may seem like a minor reduction, but previous enforcement of this policy was weak, allowing highly contaminated materials to be processed. The new approach is expected to come with greater enforcement of the contamination levels. 

With contamination levels around 10 percent, Larimer County would not be able to comply with these stricter regulations without taking further measures.   

“Our infrastructure is not able, without some changes, to meet these standards,” Gillet said.

In the event that Larimer County starts enforcing stricter acceptance policies of their own, Backen said the University will start to see fines of up to $175 for each load the county rejects. Gillet said, however, that educating the public on recycling smarter is the preferred option.

“We are going to try and educate and by education hopefully people will say, ‘hey I’m part of the problem,’ and want to do the right thing,” Gillet said.

Although the recycling industry is suffering from a lack of buyers who Gillet said can use virgin materials for less money, he still thinks it is important to maintain the practice of recycling.

“Recycling is still the right thing to do because there are only so many trees in this world, so much oil and we can’t just keep burying stuff,” Gillet said. “We need to invest in infrastructure and to recycle right.”  

Collegian reporter Ty Betts can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @TyBetts9.