High Altitude, High Aspirations

High Altitude, High Aspirations

Turning the Boulder County Fair into a zero-waste event.

The Boulder County (Colo.) Resource Conservation Division (BCRCD) has been involved in making the annual Boulder County Fair a zero-waste event since 2006. In 2007 and 2008, approximately 35 percent of recyclable and compostable materials were diverted from the landfill. In 2009, that rate climbed to 53 percent. This was, in part, due to a new approach, which entailed comprehensive manual sorting of all waste streams.

Since 2006, BCRCD has set up an education tent at the fair, where staffers hand out information and talk to people about zero waste, composting and recycling. Educational signage displayed around the grounds notifies attendees that the fair is a zero-waste event. More than 50 zero-waste stations offer pictorial guidelines above recycling, compost and trash bins. The BCRCD team attends all large food events at the fair and directs people to the appropriate bins. A “Kids' Day” event, new this year, introduced 50 children and 20 parents to recycling, composting and zero waste through an educational talk and a clean “trash sort.”

This year, a new comprehensive resource rescue approach was implemented in addition to the educational outreach. This replaced the onsite bin-sorting method used in 2008. Staff and volunteers walked the fairgrounds sorting waste into the correct bins before the custodial staff emptied the bins into corresponding dumpsters. This approach provided a visible example to the public of the zero waste effort, but was tiring work, walking many miles each day in the sun and wind, and bending repeatedly to reach into barrels. This year, all waste was brought to a single location for sorting.

A sorting station was set up under a big tent in the parking lot. Every bag of recycling, compost and trash was sorted manually to ensure materials reached their appropriate destination. This year's single-stream recycling weighed 4,590 pounds (lbs.), of which 90 percent was estimated to be plastic containers and 10 percent to be paper and cardboard. Based on the average weight of a plastic bottle, we can assume that over 125,000 single use plastic soda and water bottles were recycled.

Manual sorting helped ensure the highest possible diversion rate. Nevertheless, because the sorting tent was placed out of the way, it lacked the visibility needed to inform people about their part in zero-waste endeavors. The best-case scenario would be to have a centralized sorting station in a highly visible location.

Food vendors were contacted prior to the fair and given information on where to obtain compostable supplies. Most complied with the zero-waste policy, which eased sorting. There were fewer plastic-coated paper plates and cups than in previous years, and almost no Styrofoam.

An important aspect of zero-waste initiatives is accurate measurement. Contamination levels in recyclable and compostable materials can represent sizable weight differences. Data collection in the field of resource rescue is greatly affected by these variables. This year, 99 percent of the bottles collected were empty and lidless, whereas in previous years, the recycling was contaminated with liquids and lids.

Liquids, organic materials and food scraps all went into the compost this year. So some of the weight previously attributed to recyclables was included this year in the compost measurement. The weights for organics went up from 3,400 lbs. in 2008 to 12,000 lbs. of compostable material in 2009. In the end, the total diversion rate for 2009 was almost one-and-a-half times that of 2008.

Jennifer Bohn works for the Boulder County Resource Conservation Division as an intern and tour guide. She is an undergraduate senior in environmental and psychological studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.

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