This content was originally published by the Longmont Observer and is licensed under a Creative Commons license.
Recent reports suggest that only 9 percent of plastics are being recycled. On top of that, China has stopped accepting US recyclables. Rumors from across the country state that most of those recyclables are ending up in landfills. It’s hard not to wonder how Longmont stacks up to the rest of the country.
It’s hard to prove Boulder County recyclables don’t end up in a landfill, but it’s similarly hard to show it does. Since Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC) has a capacity of 100,000 tons, processed recyclables would have to sit on the facility’s property for two years to reach capacity. Why send recyclables to a landfill when our recycling center hasn’t run out of space to stockpile potentially sellable recyclables?
Ten to twelve percent of what enters the BCRC ends up in a landfill, but these weren’t recyclables in the first place because they were considered trash or prohibatives. In a perfect world, that 10 to 12 percent would be a zero if recyclers followed the guidelines for what is recyclable.
Our recycling doesn’t recycle itself. As Longmont residents, we pay to have our recyclables removed from our porch. We put it in a cart and roll it to the curbside for the City of Longmont to pick up. After that, we don’t see it again, not directly anyway.
“When we pick up all the recycling in Longmont, and it gets dropped off at the recycling center. The BCRC, Boulder County Recycling Center, that facility separates all the single stream, so they take all the plastics and the glass, and the bottles, and then they bale them, and then they sell them. We take all our stuff to that facility, and they process it,” said Charles Kamenides, Waste Services Manager for the City of Longmont’s Public Works & Natural Resources department.
Kamenides is responsible for the sanitation division, which includes all the curbside programs, and the actual operation. He manages the fleet of trucks that pick up all the trash, recycling, composting, and all the special collection events for all city facilities and residents. The City of Longmont doesn’t handle commercial waste; residential only.
Kamenides is also the chair for the Resource Conservation Advisory Board (RCAB) for Boulder County and he serves on the board of Recycle Colorado, a statewide committee similar to RCAB. Both groups share a similar mission to develop new ways of reducing waste in the landfill.
The overall diversion rate, the amount of waste diverted from a landfill for recycling, for Longmont in 2018 was 35.64 percent, with trash at 30,577 tons, recycle at 16,109 tons, and compost at 1,835 tons. Recycling is picked up every other week with each truck pulling in about 1,000 or more containers a day, and based on the season after about 400 to 500 carts they take the truck directly to the BCRC.
“The only time you might see a recycle cart actually go into a trash truck is when somebody moved out of a house, and then somebody moved in, and it’s just full of trash like somebody just filled it full of trash. So that could confuse somebody,” said Kamenides. “That situation arises once in a while when someone has moved out of a residence, and they filled the recycle cart with trash, leaving the new tenant with a recycle cart full of trash.”
The state of recycling in Longmont has changed over the last few decades. Sharon Malloy, a volunteer for Eco-Cycle and the Zero Waste team, can remember in the 1980s when Eco-Cycle had reconditioned school buses that would drive around and collect recycling that residents put in any old bin out on their curb. Then in the 90s, they moved to large blue bins. After that, Longmont got automated containers with one side paper/cardboard and the other side glass.
Eventually, the technology changed, and the industry wanted to receive more recycling, so it moved to single-stream sorting, and like today Longmont residents don’t have to separate recyclables. Then that created technological improvements in sorting facilities like optical sorters that sort out materials using cameras and lasers recognizing an objects’ size, shape, and structural properties.
“Right now, they’re not sending it anywhere. I don’t know if you’ve been over there before, they are stockpiling it, it’s piled up and waiting for the markets to improve,” said Malloy. “But Eco-Cycle will never put stuff in a landfill.”
Boulder County owns the BCRC facility which was built with taxpayer dollars back in 2001. The facility is sustained through an enterprise fund, a self-supporting fund, through the sale of recyclable materials and much of that funding is used to contract with Eco-Cycle to operate it. The BCRC doesn’t physically operate the facility but have been the contract administrators over the years of the operation.
“I can speak to Longmont, and my knowledge of Boulder County because I work very closely with our partners in Boulder County, and that we’re still committed to recycling everything we pick up that’s recyclable,” said Kamenides. “It’s not allowed to go into China, so that’s created some challenges for other communities, but in Boulder County, they still strive to find markets that are doable, that are regional and national.”
The BCRC sorts Longmont’s 16,0000 tons of recyclables along with the rest of Boulder County’s for a total of over 50,000 tons processed a year. The facility has a 100,000-ton capacity on the premises, which means it would take two years to reach capacity.
Darla Arians is the Division Manager with the Boulder County Resource Conservation Division and oversees the BCRC. She’s been at the division for ten years now and recalls the last time the market fell which was back in 2009, and that lasted about a year.
“We used to gauge it all on what we call the OBM. It’s basically the market pricing the market index for fiber, and if newspaper dropped below $90 a ton, markets were bad,” said Arians. “Well, markets are way worse than that right now. It’s at an all-time low. It’s worse than we’ve ever seen it. And OBM finally stabilized this month in August. So, we feel good. We’re taking a deep breath now because once it stabilizes, we know there’s only one way that it can go.”
The BCRC was built to process 100,000 tons a year and is at 50% capacity as of August. Part of their backlog problem also has to do with taking on extra material a few months ago. The Alpine Waste & Recycling facility underwent a huge retrofit to invest in the same technology the BCRC is using. The BCRC took on all of their recycling material for the month Alpine Recycle was down. The BCRC doubled their volume, running two shifts, to keep up in addition to the slow sale movement of bailed recyclable materials.
“Over the years as we watched the market fluctuate because the markets are always going up and down in our world. If market pricing for a particular commodity is low, at zero, or if it goes negative, we’re not moving that material, we’re going to hold on to it because we have the space to hold on to it. We’ll wait because we know it’s eventually going to go back up. So, we just sit on it,” said Arians.
The City of Longmont adopted a Zero Waste resolution in October 2008. According to the ordinance, Longmont declared itself a Zero Waste Community and encouraged the pursuit of Zero Waste.
As part of Darla Arians’ senior project at Naropa University, back in 2001, she worked to develop the Zero Waste program with BCRC/Eco-Cycle’s board of directors and facilities management to approve the program and get it launched.
“We have pretty high standards,” said Arians. “We selected a contractor that was on board and supported the same mission that we have. That’s one great thing about working with Eco-Cycle is that they’re a hundred percent behind that.”
Back in October of 2017, the BCRC had $2.8 million worth of optical sensor upgrades, which was customized by MACHINEX Technologies of Canada. It uses a combination of optic technology and compressed air to sort materials. Before this added new technology, materials were sorted by hand and were prone to higher rates of sorting error.
With the upgrades came more accuracy, the BCRC was able to recover and process 95 percent of the mixed plastics it received, 90 percent of the aluminum, and 98 percent of other targeted materials. The BCRC and Eco-Cycle set a new industry standard back in 2017 that other facilities like the Alpine Waste & Recycling eventually shadowed.
The plastic sorting units use an advanced camera and light technology to identify which plastics are on the belt. While the air compressor releases jets of air to propel plastic items sorted by type into their correct storage bunkers, the detection system takes only one millisecond to analyze items on the belt.
The world is full of plastics just like Longmont and Boulder County. #1 and #2 plastics are the easiest plastics to sort and recycle, while #3 through #7 plastics are difficult-to-recycle plastics. Other recycling facilities without newer technologies don’t recycle #3 through #7 plastics that usually end up in a landfill, especially with the China tariffs.
“We’re one of the only MRFs (Material Recovery Facility) in the US that are able to produce and market #3 through #7. We’re really lucky that we have a relationship with a plastic recycler down in Louisiana who turns it into railroad ties,” said Arians. “We’ve been picky about the types of plastic that we have accepted. Therefore, we’ve been able to market and move our material. Those companies that recycle #3 through #7 plastic have trouble if they get like a #5 plastic mixed in with their #3 or #7 mix because they each have a different melting point.”
Different MRFs are landfilling #3 through #7 plastic that residents are taking the time and effort to recycle. They send it to the recycling facility, and then it gets landfilled because those facilities don’t have newer technologies or end markets. They end up having to pay to get rid of the plastic they can’t recycle.
“When we sell it to our plastic recycling facilities, we know it’s getting recycled because we’re sending them clean material. That is their business model; their business model is based on getting all that plastic. They wash it, they pelletize, and then they sell those pellets that are made into other products. It just doesn’t make sense for them [other MRFs] to then send it to them [end markets] because then they would have to pay to dispose of it. That’s not the business that they’re in,” said Arians.
A small fraction of processed materials at the BCRC have gone to Chinese or Korean end markets, but most of it ends up regionally and nationally within the US. The recycling market is changing, it’s still a competitive market, but the BCRC moved away from selling to Asian end markets.
“Although China didn’t directly impact us, we were indirectly impacted just by the slowing of the movement of material in our domestic Mills. The hidden blessing behind China closing their doors is now we have all these domestic mills opening,” said Arians.
“They tightened their standards a couple of years ago, which made a lot of the MRFs start to notice, ‘Okay, well, we need to either slow down our processing lines to produce a cleaner material or do something differently, invest in technology.’ Plus, optical sorting has a 96 to 98 percent accuracy rate. That’s one way to clean up the materials that you’re sorting right away. It’s a huge investment though; most do not have that, a million dollars per machine laying around to invest.”
When the Longmont Observer asked for total sales numbers, we were told by Arians and Marti Matsch, Eco-Cycle Deputy Director, that it was proprietary information.
Matsch made it clear that Eco-Cycle can’t provide a detailed list of specific end markets because the market for materials is extremely competitive. Especially in the current situation, Materials Recovery Facilities generally keep their specific markets confidential.
“I can share that our glass goes to a company called Momentum Recycling in Broomfield, CO. In fact, we helped them relocate to Colorado to provide more of a market for glass for all of us along the Front Range and in the Rocky Mountain Region,” said Matsch. “Our aluminum and steel both stay in the Rocky Mountain region where there are a few different buyers. Our plastic is all marketed here within the US and paper is marketed within North America.”
“We don’t always go to the exact same buyer with every type of material, so there really is no point where I could tell you ‘this material always goes here,’ with glass being the exception. Even on the same day, two loads of the same commodity may head to different markets, depending on many variables including the current purchasing price and that market’s capacity to receive a load as it is ready to ship.”
For the end market, twelve new recycling facility mills are planned to open in the US. These are mills that had closed will reopen, and some are being built from scratch.
“We’ve got some of our plastics going out to Alabama. We’ve got some going out to Iowa and Nebraska. It really just depends on the type of plastic that it is and where that particular type, they call them PRFs Plastic Recycling Facility, is located,” said Arians.
“Cardboard primarily goes to the Pacific Northwest where most of our domestic mills are located. On the plastic side, I will say that all of our plastics are marketed in the US proper. Our fiber, it’s marketed domestically, primarily on the United States, but we do send some to mills in Mexico. There are Mills down in the southwest United States, but the majority of them right now are in the northwest United States.”
Ten to twelve percent of what goes to the BCRC facility ends up in a landfill, but only because it wasn’t recyclable in the first place. In other words, trash or material that was a prohibitive which was accidentally included by recyclers.
“Our recyclables do NOT end up in the landfill,” said Matsch. “As a ‘mission-based recycler’ we are committed to resource conservation, even in challenging market conditions. It’s important to remember that Eco-Cycle and the County earn revenue only from recyclables being marketed. Unlike other recycling companies who may also make a profit as a landfill operator, anything that has to be landfilled at the BCRC becomes a direct cost to the program.”
“Therefore, it wouldn’t make much economic sense for us to be landfilling materials rather than recycling them. If markets ever required us to start landfilling a particular material, you can be sure we would be cutting that material from the program. To date, our diligent efforts in finding and sometimes even creating markets have prevented us from having to do that.”
Current Colorado Governor Jared Polis is working to close the loop on recyclables in the Front Range. The Senate passed Bill 192 which imposes a fee on every ton of materials taken and dumped in a landfill. That fee will go into a fund that will be distributed throughout the state of Colorado in grants to help develop better and different infrastructure within the state of Colorado.
“The main idea is to develop infrastructure in the state of Colorado, so we don’t have to ship things so far away and have the ability to expand different recycling technologies here in the state of Colorado,” said Kamenides. “Recycle Colorado, the board I’m on volunteering was instrumental at speaking and testifying and supporting a couple of senators who introduced that bill.”
In the near future, the BCRC hopes to get some robots that can do about four times the amount of human hand picks. They could sort not just one or two types of material, but up to four types of material at a time. One of the biggest challenges the facility faces is labor retention, and robots could alleviate some of that issue.
In addition to robots, they also hope to get fiber optical sorting equipment. It’s like the cutting-edge plastic optical sorting equipment they have already, but instead, it sorts fiber. It’ll sort newspaper, and cardboard and office paper, and produce a clean stream of fiber. They plan to make these investments when the market looks better in the future.
“A robot, even though it’s an upfront investment, about $200,000, the return on investment is just under four years for that. You have the longevity of consistency that the robot doesn’t call in sick. The robot doesn’t quit,” said Arians.
“We’ve had a lot of success with marketing our material. We’ve really been known as an MRF that has produced very clean commodities over the years. But we put a lot of money into labor in order to do that. The fiber optical sorting will help us help Eco-Cycle maintain their labor costs and reduce their turnover rate.”
A perfect stream of recyclables takes more than just sorters and robots; it takes all the residents of Longmont and Boulder County to bring the BCRC prohibatives number down from 10/12 percent to 0 percent. The importance of educating the community to reduce waste in the recyclables is paramount. You can find recycling guidelines here. If you’re looking for something handier, check out the new app that tells you where your waste and recyclables should go.