Waste diversion study exposes missed recyclables in trash

VALLEY — The old proverb “Waste not, want not,” means folks can manage their wasteful tendencies for profit and the common good, and that’s exactly what the SLV Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) and its Conejos Clean Water (CCW) partner are providing with its Waste Diversion and Recycling study for the San Luis Valley.

Funded by a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a US EPA Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) grant, a considerable amount of information on the Valley’s existing waste management and diversion systems was collected by SLVEC & CCW in a survey wrapped up in April. The project then focused on a second major effort conducting a two-day trash audit, which exposed the types and composition of the waste we generate and uncovered a staggering amount of recyclable material.

A 15-member task force collected the baseline data on the region’s recycling capacity, which involved contacting 80 waste generators including landfills, businesses, waste haulers, government agencies, transfer station operations, and organizations involved in waste diversion and recycling.

The baseline data indicated that of all the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) originating from households and commercial businesses in 2016, 7,200 tons were being diverted, and 32,100 tons landfilled --- translating to an 18 percent diversion rate for the Valley. This translates to 4.6 pounds-per person-per day, compared to over 9 pounds for the State of Colorado.

While not too bad for a rural area, in early May, SLVEC & CCW conducted a waste audit that revealed many recyclables are being disposed, which, if handled properly, could vastly improve that rate and potentially offer some missed financial opportunities for recyclers. By far the greatest amount of trash (92 percent) winds up at the SLV Regional Solid Waste Authority (SLVRSWA) west of Monte Vista - the most logical place to conduct the audit.

Referred to as a “regulation waste audit” necessary to meet CDPHE standards, this historic event took place under the careful guidance of LBA Consultant’s Laurie Batchelder Adams and landfill chief Jim Clare who hosted the audit at his award-winning facility which has been keeping the Valley disease-free for many years.

A sort team was convened on the first day, which consisted of LBA, agency staff, some task force members, and other volunteers. This included Director Christine Canaly, Project Coordinator Kristina Crowder, and Project Developer John Stump on the SLVEC staff, and Anna Lee Vargas, now co-director of CCW. Task force members who volunteered included Town of Saguache Mayor Pro Tem May Engquist, Tina Miani co-owner of Waste Free SLV recyclers, and Rossi Duran, facilities manager for the Town of Antonito.  Also volunteering were Claire Barker of Mosca and Brian Underwood in Alamosa.

With safety rules in mind and instruction by participation and example from LBA, the team suited-up and hand-picked what amounted to more than 3,000 pounds of trash samples arriving in waste hauler trucks to the landfill. 

A strategy was designed to ensure that samples weighing about 429 pounds each were representative as much as possible from counties in the region. Samples were unloaded onto a tarp and transferred in smaller batches to the sort table, where the team scooped out handfuls for sorting into tubs labeled for 28 different types of waste. Materials were weighed and then returned to the landfill.

With the study scope and focus on MSW such as paper, cardboard, fiberboard, plastics, glass, and food waste, the sort team encountered a wide range of other materials including C&D (Construction & Demolition), hazardous waste such as electronics, and material classified as “special waste” including furniture, fixtures, carpet, textiles, mattresses, pallets, batteries, bulbs, and other items.

Morale of the crew remained surprisingly high, given the high afternoon winds, compactor noise from the pit, and the endless piles of conglomerated trash mixed with garbage and other unmentionables which had to be sorted out --- piece-by-piece. Reacting to the task at hand, May Engquist, who volunteered for the sort team, noted, “So many things that could be recycled are just being thrown away, especially food waste!” 

All agreed that much more could be done to control wasteful behavior and support recycling on a much bigger scale. This feeling was verified by LBA’s preliminary audit report indicating that 33 percent of materials in the trash, such as cardboard, textiles, plastic bags, and glass, could have been recycled, and 32 percent more potentially recovered for composting totaling 65 percent that could be diverted from the landfill.

Results also showed that 43 percent of the materials were organics, followed by paper (17 percent), hazardous and special waste (17 percent), plastics (14 percent), metals (6 percent), and glass (3 percent). 

To perform the exacting tasks of planning and implementing the two-day audit required a number of special roles and responsibilities. Both SLVEC and CCW are recognized for the long-standing partnership with over a two-year history of waste management and diversion projects.

Special thanks was also accorded to Rossi Duran of Antonito for providing a truck to handle rental equipment in addition to his role on the sort team based on experience in handling materials and maintaining a consistent work flow.

Relating to the project work ahead, SLVEC lead staff for the project, John Stump reported that “combined analysis of the audit and baseline data on existing systems will be shared with stakeholders and the Task Force at meetings scheduled for the end of June.”  Here they will be asked to identify and prioritize improvements needed to increase our diversion capacity with the ultimate goal of optimizing waste diversion over the next 10 years.

Caption: Waste audit participant Kristina Crowder enters data while Brian Underwood weighs trash. Courtesy photo