October 1, 2001

8 Min Read
Boulder County Fights Back

Laurie Batchelder Adams and Kara Dinhoffer

Although Colorado has the reputation of being an environmental state, it doesn't officially support recycling.

For example, in 1993, Colorado's governor proposed a 50 percent waste diversion goal that was never adopted or funded. In fact, despite being required to document landfill quantities, Colorado has never successfully measured solid waste disposal and diversion.

“Colorado has the reputation of being an environmental state. The irony is that the state allocates minimal resources to recycling — either in the form of program support, funding or legislative incentives,” says Marjie Griek, president of the Colorado Association for Recycling (CAFR). Nevertheless, one community, Boulder County, is pursuing a multi-facility, integrated diversion management program and is attempting to document its diversion efforts.

Located a few miles northwest of Denver, Boulder county has attracted sports and nature enthusiasts, and environmentalists for many years. Despite its reputation as a “tree-hugging” community nestled against the Flatirons of the Rocky Mountains, the county does not lead the state in diversion rates [See “Does Pay-As-You-Throw Pay Off?” Waste Age June 2000, page 50]. But over the past few years, Boulder county residents literally have put their tax dollars where their mouths are.

Boulder's Baby Steps

In the early 1990s, Boulder county and its municipalities generated approximately 270,000 tons of waste annually. Solid waste was disposed of in neighboring facilities because no landfills operate in the county. Some neighborhoods recycled, but commercial and industrial diversion was virtually non-existent.

Eventually, the community's support for recycling coupled with Boulder's desire to avoid siting a new landfill forced county officials to evaluate their waste diversion options.

In 1994, a one-tenth of a cent sales tax to generate funds for a new recycling center and composting program was passed. The tax, which sunsets in 2001, was designed to generate $23 million over seven years.

Using an intergovernmental agreement, 11 governments (including Boulder county, the city of Boulder and nine other municipalities), established the Boulder County Recycling and Composting Authority (BCRCA), and set a 50 percent diversion goal. Today, BCRCA has three full-time staffers and is governed by a board of directors representing each municipal member.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

The county's cornerstone project, a 75,000-ton per year, semi-automated recycling facility went on line July 2. It will include residential/commercial fiber and container sort lines, and is designed to process source-separated and commingled materials, as well as residential and commercial streams. The facility houses its own full-scale public drop-off station and will eventually access markets by both road and rail.

The processing area and administrative buildings incorporate recycled-content materials and energy-efficient heating and lighting. The buildings border wetlands, which are protected from stormwater contamination by a bio-treatment interceptor system. And the facility, operated by the country's largest community-based nonprofit recycler, EcoCycle, will be an environmental conservation/waste diversion demonstration site for county schools and visitors.

Currently, only one BCRCA member, the city of Longmont, controls curbside recyclables collection. The others use open-subscription programs, where haulers truck their materials to one or more processing facilities in Boulder and surrounding counties, depending on the collection location and gate fees. As a result, BCRCA must be competitive to attract recyclables to the new facility.

Fortunately, the facility has no debt because of sales tax revenues, and is expected to be economically self-sufficient within the first six to 12 months.

The county has established a sliding cost/revenue scale to reflect the material quality range. “This will allow us to better cover the actual cost of processing and marketing any load, and should be very attractive to our municipalities and haulers,” says Jeff Callahan, BCRCA executive director. “As importantly, we will not be dictating to county generators where their recyclables should go — we'll let our competitive rates do that for us.”

A “Bolder” Way To Recycle

As of Nov. 2001, Boulder will eliminate its curbside recycling services to help address municipal funding shortfalls. Instead, the city will regulate trash haulers that operate in Boulder, requiring them to provide curbside recycling collection to all of their single-and multi-family residential customers. Furthermore, haulers must charge unit-based prices for trash collection.

Building recycling collection costs into the trash service's base rate, plus using a pay-as-you-throw system as an economic incentive, is designed to encourage residents to subscribe to lower service levels.

In addition, to support the new facility, the city will define the materials that must be collected at curbside, paralleling the materials accepted by the new recycling center.

Boulder haulers worked with city staff to develop the ordinance and create these changes. Although the haulers are more regulated, most are pleased that trash and recycling services were not municipalized.

“As long as it remains a level playing field where all haulers are expected to provide the same high level of service, no company has a competitive disadvantage,” says Gary Horton, executive vice president of Western Disposal Services, Boulder county's largest hauling company.

By November, the city expects to develop additional waste reduction and recycling programs for businesses and residents to help ease the sting of a pay-as-you-throw system. Using private contractors for curbside recycling frees up approximately $800,000 annually in municipal funds to support other programs, city officials say.

Composting On-Farm Style

The county also has decided to divert yard waste, but realized that finding available, affordable land for a centralized facility near the population centers would be difficult.

As a result, the county will be composting at several farms. The advantage of on-farm composting includes lower transportation costs and the ability to increase the organic content of sandy Rocky Mountain soils onsite.

The county began with a compost pilot project in 2000 and expects to take the program full-scale later this year, taking into consideration feedstock controls and the combination of urban generators and rural processing facilities.

Meanwhile, Boulder likely will join Longmont in subsidizing curbside yard debris collection. These programs will supplement established drop-off center and special-events operated throughout the county. But the BCRCA staff still will have to work with municipalities to divert materials to the new county compost facility.

Other Policy Punches

BCRCA-member municipalities also are considering other policy changes. For example, Broomfield and Louisville counties may be following Boulder's example of requiring recycling in multi-family residential dwellings with more than eight units.

Individual diversion activities also are being instituted by BCRCA members. For instance, both Boulder county and the Boulder-based University of Colorado have policies to buy environmentally friendly products.

The university has an active diversion program that was named the Nation's Model Campus Recycling Program by the 2000 White House Task Force on Recycling. The program includes an onsite recyclables drop-off and processing program, and a statewide materials exchange program.

BCRCA also supports other diversion efforts. For example, EcoCycle, the recycling facility operator, has held several electronics collection events and provides businesses with diversion training; the Boulder Energy Conservation Center operates Resource 2000, a building materials reuse facility; and EXTRAs! for Education and Creative Exchange is diverting materials from landfills to local school programs for reuse.

No Guts, No Glory

To maintain community support for waste diversion, Boulder has a full-time staffer dedicated to public education and outreach. BCRCA coordinates educational displays and special events, and provides more than $70,000 in grants annually to support education and infrastructure development. The staff also conducts a myriad of training programs on topics such as master composting, vermicomposting and buy-recycled.

“Residents and businesses must understand how easy it is to adopt green purchasing practices, and then reduce their wastes by recycling and composting to a point where they can actually see the difference in their pocketbooks,” says Stacy Swank, BCRCA's education coordinator.

Of course, making waste a diversion a priority in Boulder county has not been without its pitfalls. The challenges have included:

  • Reaching an agreement among a large group of stakeholders on how to spend tax dollars equitably;

  • Maintaining good working relationships based on justifying expenditures of tax dollars and collaborating on diversion;

  • Working with on-farm compost operators on access and feedstock control issues; and

  • Implementing policy changes to create incentives for diversion.

  • When the sales tax support and current intergovernmental agreement end later this year, BCRCA's responsibilities will transfer to the county government, although existing staff is expected to remain. The county intends to continue the work started by its residents seven years ago, and will continue to work toward BCRCA's diversion goal.

    The recycling and compost facilities will continue to be priority, and public outreach will remain a prominent service, officials say. Future projects, such as improvements to the municipal drop-off collection system, also are being evaluated.

    “Boulder has made tremendous progress in seven years,” says BCRCA's Callahan. “There is no telling where we'll be in another decade.”

    Laurie Batchelder Adams is a senior environmental manager with HDR Inc., Denver. Contact her at (303) 764-1599 or [email protected]. Kara Dinhoffer is the city of Boulder's recycling coordinator, and can be reached at (303) 441-3004 or [email protected].

    To view additional articles about waste diversion, visit www.wasteage.com.

Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.

You May Also Like