Recycling in a Small Desert Community

Steph Hambrosky | June 2018

Recycling in rural areas, including southeast Utah, presents numerous challenges such as finding viable markets for recyclables and accessing funding to operate recycling facilities. However, recycling remains a crucial step toward reducing the carbon footprint of our community and achieving zero waste goals. Unfortunately, the conversation on recycling in the Moab valley is saturated with misinformation and rumors. The following information presents a thorough summary of the current status of recycling in Grand County.

The Solid Waste Special Service District #1 processes all recyclables for Grand County. It is an independently managed entity that operates the Community Recycling Center (CRC), the Moab and Klondike Landfills, and an industrial composting project near the Moab Landfill. The District is governed by a five person administrative control board consisting of representatives from the Grand County Council, Moab City Council, Castle Valley Council, and two at-large members. The daily operations are managed by a District Manager with assistance from an Administrative Assistant and a Facilities Supervisor/Foreman. Green Solutions, a privately-owned company, provides a recyclable pick-up service to the community for a monthly fee. Community members who do not subscribe to this program must bring their recyclables to the CRC at 1000 East Sand Flats Road.

The CRC accepts some plastics, paper products, aluminum and steel cans, glass, electronic waste, hazardous waste products, and yard waste for composting. The District provides clear signage at the CRC to help community members sort their recyclables. The District receives no taxpayer funding, relying solely on landfill fees, revenue from the Transient Room Tax (TRT), and small payments for recyclable materials which do not exceed basic operating costs. The TRT is imposed on anyone seeking temporary lodging for less than 30 consecutive days at locations such as hotels, motels, and campgrounds. Every year, the District actually loses tens of thousands of dollars by recycling materials in our community. Therefore, funding for additional labor to sort recyclables does not exist, and community members must help with this process at the CRC.

A major source of recycling-related confusion is glass, and lots of rumors are swirling around the community. Currently, the District repurposes glass recyclables into a soil amendment for landfill cover and pad liners for their composting operation. The District is required to cover the landfill with a soil-like material and provide padding for their compost windrows. If the District can use glass recyclables from the community to produce crushed glass, they can reduce their dependence on soil shipped into Moab, which reduces costs and the use of fossil fuels. The District can also reduce the use of fossil fuels and limited District funding required to ship glass recyclables to the nearest market in Salt Lake City. Essentially, the District encourages community members to continue diverting their glass for local reuse. Green Solutions will no longer accept it due to potential for worker injury, so it must be dropped off directly at the CRC.

Another complex aspect of recycling is the ubiquitous world of plastics. Almost all aspects of contemporary life entail the use of plastic, including electronics, fabrics, and food packaging. Most people are now familiar with the resin identification codes ranging from #1 to #7. Plastics #1 and #2 are easier to recycle and process, but plastics #3-7 present more complications. Some products contain more than one type of plastic, which presents a challenge in the sorting process. Plastics labeled #7 actually encompass dozens of different types of speciality plastics. Overall, plastics recycling lacks financial viability, and few domestic markets for recycling these items exist. Currently the CRC’s collection of #3-7 plastics are utilized as materials for a windbreak at the Klondike Landfill. Again, these materials are repurposed into a useful product by the District in order to avoid the high labor costs and carbon footprint of processing, baling, and shipping plastics. For plastics, the most important recommendation is to refuse plastic products, especially unnecessary items like plastic bags and water bottles.

A major contemporary issue with recycling is the evolving trade relationship between the U.S. and China. Market potential for many recyclables has plummeted since China restricted imports of recyclable materials. In the past, the U.S. depended on the export of many recyclable materials, namely plastic, unsorted paper, and metals. China would use U.S. recyclables for their own manufacturing processes and sell the finished products back to the United States. However, high rates of contamination and China’s desire to focus on national development has changed this critical trade relationship. Starting in 2013, Operation Green Fence sought to reduce the import of waste and the contamination of recyclables. This first step to reduce contamination led to China’s broader National Sword program, which restricts the import of numerous materials. U.S. recycling collection facilities now face huge challenges: finding new, viable markets for their recyclables and reducing contamination. Global capitalism created a situation where shipping recyclables to China was more affordable than shipping and processing them domestically. The development of domestic mills may be a necessity in the future.

In several cases, reusing and repurposing items is more cost effective and environmentally beneficial than recycling them. Consider the impact of shipping recyclables to a market in Denver or Salt Lake City instead of reusing these materials in town to produce windbreaks, landfill cover, compost pad liners, metal art, and more. Debby Barton, Solid Waste District Manager and sometimes referred to as the “Garbage Goddess,” wants the community to focus more on the other Rs—refuse, reduce, reuse, and repurpose—before we think about recycling. Debby welcomes suggestions from community members for inventive uses for our community’s recyclables. One community member regularly collects brown glass to create industrial art, for example.

The environmental benefits of recycling are substantial. Consider the following statistics:

  • Recycling one ton of paper saves 17 mature trees, 380 gallons of oil, 4,000 kWh, and 7,000 gallons of water. Steel and aluminum can be recycled indefinitely, so recycling steel and aluminum can significantly reduce the need for mining raw materials.
  • For every ton of steel recycled, we avoid mining 1.2 tons of iron ore, 0.7 tons of coal, and 0.06 tons of limestone. Considerable amounts of fossil fuels power the extraction of iron ore, and global steel production relies on coal. In fact, 74% of current steel production utilizes coal.
  • For every ton of aluminum recycled, we avoid mining 4 tons of bauxite ore and using 40 barrels of oil. While 75% of all aluminum ever produced continues to be used today, we lose substantial amounts of aluminum to landfills. For example, in the United States only 31% of aluminum cans are recycled.

Bauxite ore mining requires an open pit mining operation, and high energy inputs transform the bauxite ore from a raw material into aluminum. Mining operations entail negative ecological impacts as a result of clear cutting trees and facilitating biodiversity and habitat loss and erosion. By recycling these materials, we can avoid the need for further mining operations.

In small, rural communities, recycling requires considerable effort from community members. Some folks in the community may feel discouraged from recycling due to the time required for collecting, transporting, and sorting at the CRC. Hopefully, the aforementioned clarifications and statistics on the importance of recycling will encourage members of our community to invest more time and energy into properly recycling.

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Interested in contributing to The Dust Magazine? Check out our submissions page.