ALAMOSA — With its residents generating approximately 39,000 tons of waste a year and diverting only 18 percent of that from the regional landfill, the San Luis Valley has some work ahead of it to get out of the trash pit.
“Only about 7,000 tons of that is being recycled now,” said John Stump, staff with the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, which along with Conejos Clean Water is leading efforts to improve recycling in the Valley.
The group is focusing on waste from residences and businesses, not agricultural operations.
Folks serving on a waste diversion task force shared information and ideas during recent public meetings throughout the Valley.
Stump explained that the task force is targeting the entire Valley in its efforts to improve waste diversion. He said the task force surveyed folks throughout the Valley who are involved in recycling, waste hauling or just generating waste. The information from the 80 surveys helped provide a baseline for what is happening now in the Valley, Stump added.
The task force also conducted an audit of waste at the regional landfill, separating items into 28 different bins to determine what types of items are being thrown away.
Laurie Adams, a consultant with LBA Associates Inc. who is working with the task force pictured above, explained that a good share of the trash at the regional landfill is comprised of food and other organic waste, something for which there is very limited opportunity in the Valley to recycle. Other items range from yard waste and plastic to textiles (like clothes), paper and plastic bags/wrap. Plastic bags, for example, comprise 3-4 percent of the landfill’s waste by weight.
“That’s a lot of plastic bags,” Adams said.
On average each Valley resident is generating about 5 pounds of solid waste a day, which is about the national average but better than the statewide average, Adams said.
“You are diverting about 18 percent by weight of what you generate,” she said.
Adams said that is not bad, but “there are improvements that can be made.”
She said of the items catalogued during the May audit, or “dumpster diving” event, about one third of them could have been recycled into existing programs. Another third was organic, which might be difficult to recycle, and another third was “real trash.”
Adams said about 90 percent of the trash in the Valley winds up at the regional landfill near Del Norte, but Mineral and Saguache Counties have landfills as well, and Saguache County has a recycling center. The Valley does not have many options for recycling, Adams added, but the “gem” is Alamosa’s Rickey Center, which accepts recyclable items from Alamosa area residents as well as residents from elsewhere.
She also commended Adams State University and the City Market, Safeway and Rainbow Grocery stores for their recycling efforts. Adams said federal agencies such as the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks & Wildlife also have recycling programs in place.
On a smaller scale, area thrift stores and Habitat for Humanity also promote recycling, Adams said.
Adams asked the group attending the Alamosa public meeting what they saw as positive efforts now and what could be improved.
Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen, who has served on the regional landfill board for 21 years, said the landfill board has set up some recycling programs for twine and metal recently, on top of efforts already in place.
“We are trying to do as much recycling as we can without costing us a lot more staff,” he said.
The landfill is exporting recyclable materials as much as possible, he said.
Bill Burch, who operates recycling services in Saguache County and is serving on the waste diversion task force, said the regional landfill has also started keeping mattresses out of the pits, something Saguache County had also been doing. In fact, Saguache County prohibits mattresses in the Saguache County landfill. Burch has been recycling them out of the Valley.
He added, “We have kept almost 400 pieces of furniture out of the pit.”
He said he and his wife serve as the “sorting machines” in Saguache County, and they perform their recycling work more out of service than profit.
“If we can stay in business, we will be really happy,” he said.
The City of Alamosa has increased its recycling opportunities as well, City Public Works Director Pat Steenburg said. For example, the city has a glass crusher at the recycling center now, which crushed 85 tons in its first year, Steenburg said. He explained that it is too expensive to haul out to sell, but the city is reusing the crushed glass for road base and other purposes.
Alamosa also offers residents an option to recycle yard waste in a separate container, and Steenburg said the city is up to 500 subscribers for that service. The city has ground up some of the yard waste it has collected but has accumulated piles of it, Steenburg explained. Limbs, rather than grass clippings, represent a great deal of that, he added.
Linda DeHerrera, Conejos County land use office, commended the town of Antonito for initiating a curbside service that has been well received.
Attendees at the meeting in Alamosa provided some suggestions. For example, businessman LeRoy Martinez recommended transfer stations to provide Valley residents another place to take their trash, because not every community has curbside pick up, and many people live in rural areas.
“I think it would be profitable,” he said.
Jim Clare, with the regional solid waste authority, said the authority has been trying to push for transfer stations for a long time but nobody wants to do it.
Adams talked about challenges to recycling in this area. For example, she said prices for recyclable items are down and transportation costs to take them out of the Valley to someone who might buy them are up.
Steenburg said Alamosa does not make that much money on its recyclable items, and in fact the city subsidizes the Rickey Recycling Center $18,000-25,000 a year.
He said while the city staff and officials want to provide as many recycling options as possible, “we need to make sure we are fiscally responsible.”
He explained that sometimes the city has to stockpile some recycled items until the price gets better.
Attendees talked about packaging area recyclables together to get a better price.
“Regional collaboration is huge,” Adams said.
Even with collaborative efforts, the market is a challenge, Clare said.
Steenburg questioned whether residents would be willing or able to pay more for separate recycling pick up, like the yard waste, and the city does not have enough sanitation trucks to handle that at this point.
“And where would we take it?” he asked.
“There’s some big questions that have to be answered.”
Steenburg said 28 percent of Alamosa’s population lives below the poverty level, so the city cannot expect them to pay higher rates for separate trash collections.
Adams said sometimes people think recycling makes money, and it does not. Another myth is that everything can be recycled, but it cannot, she said.
She agreed with audience members that educating the public was key to helping people understand how recycling works and why it is important to make improvements in recycling where possible.
Marty Jones suggested that food waste be turned into compost that could be sold.
Clare said there are two to three composting operations in the Valley now, primarily in the agricultural sector. He said the regulations on composting are strict. Adams added the regulations on composting operations are almost as strict as landfills.
Clare said it is important to educate the public about what is available for recycling.
Jinger Tilden, Alamosa County land use, said one of the ways the county has shared information in the past is to send out flyers with tax notices. She suggested sharing information in a similar manner about where people can recycle items.
When the group discussed a mill levy or additional user fees for recycling, the general consensus was that was not the answer because so many people are financially strapped here.
The group kept coming back to the idea of education being crucial to increased recycling efforts.
Alamosa area resident Lane Honn said there are many people who do not even know there is a recycling center in Alamosa.
“I think education is going to be a huge factor here,” he said.
Adams said further public meetings would be scheduled this fall to discuss options and solutions.