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The Bottom of the Heap

Community activists hope to boost local recycling efforts



The Pikes Peak region has a long way to go in terms of improving its waste recycling efforts, and progress will likely be slow and piecemeal.

That was among the conclusions of a symposium held Friday at Colorado College, attended by more than 100 people who were looking for ways to reduce waste in the community.

According to the Clean Air Campaign of the Pikes Peak Region, the chief sponsor of the symposium, only about 8 percent of household waste in El Paso County is recycled. In comparison, the statewide rate is estimated at 19 percent, and the nationwide rate is estimated at 28 percent. Only three states -- Wyoming, Montana and Alaska -- are believed to recycle less than Colorado.

Among the main reasons for Colorado's low rating, says Steve Blanchard of the Clean Air Campaign, are the abundance of open space for landfills and a lack of commercial markets for recycled materials in the Mountain West.

But even though Coloradans aren't in imminent danger of drowning in garbage, it's still a good idea to recycle, Blanchard maintains. After all, he says, recyclable materials are a resource that ought to be used, not wasted.

"This stuff has some value," Blanchard said. "We're throwing money away."

In the Colorado Springs area, household recycling is strictly voluntary. Curbside trash collection is operated by private waste haulers, most of which offer recycling services to customers. The city has only one recycling drop-off center, operated by Waste Management, Inc. In addition, El Paso County operates recycling programs for yard waste and household chemicals.

Many other communities across the country, including some in Colorado, require curbside recycling. Sam Cole of EcoCycle, a Boulder nonprofit organization, said the most successful programs are those that use a "pay-as-you-throw" system. Under such a system, households have an incentive to recycle more, because their trash pickup fees increase with the amount of garbage they throw out. The cities of Boulder and Loveland both use versions of pay-as-you-throw, Cole said.

There will always be citizens who recycle out of the "goodness of their hearts," but to get everybody on board, "you've got to give them some financial incentives," Cole said.

The best way to implement such solutions is for municipalities to get involved in local waste hauling by operating it themselves or contracting it out, Cole said.

Colorado Springs City Councilman Richard Skorman, who attended Friday's forum, said he doubted that the City would ever take over local waste collection.

"I don't think we want to get into the garbage-hauling business," Skorman said.

And Blanchard said the consensus from the symposium was that radical solutions would likely be rejected. The strategy will be to "take our time, build support, and go for small victories," he said.

Participants in the symposium plan to form a committee that will examine what's been done elsewhere and come up with proposed solutions that might work locally, Blanchard said.

In terms of what the city government can do, Skorman said he'd like to see recycling bins next to trash cans along city streets and in public buildings. Also, "the city could certainly buy more recycled products," he said.

While local waste haulers don't consider recycling profitable at the present time, Blanchard said it could become a viable industry contributing to the diversity of the area's economy. A 2001 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the nationwide recycling and reuse industry employed more than 1.1 million people and grossed more than $236 billion in annual revenues.

Increasing recycling will probably involve some initial cost to the community, Blanchard said. However, "I think overall, the economic stimulation from using this stuff will be a net plus to the community."

-- Terje Langeland

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