Mandatory commercial recycling ordinance tabled until February as Steamboat Council asks for more public input

Les Liman, owner of Twin Enviro Services that operates the Milner Landfill, is pictured inspecting recycling. Steamboat Springs is considering an ordinance that would make recycling mandatory for commercial properties.
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After some debate, Steamboat Springs City Council members decided that they need more input from the community before voting on an ordinance that would make commercial recycling mandatory in Steamboat Springs.

On Tuesday, Dec. 6, City Council decided 4-3 to table the recycling ordinance until its Feb. 7 meeting, with council members saying they hoped to engage with the community between now and then. 

“For me, personally, the proposal is acceptable,” City Council President Robin Crossan told city staff. “I’d like to have more public input if it’s feasible. And if you come back and say, ‘We tried three more times for public input and nobody showed up,’ then the due diligence was done.”

As a result, the city will host three open houses in January to help communicate the details of the ordinance to the public. The open houses will be at noon Jan. 5, 6 p.m. Jan. 24 and 2 p.m. Jan. 26 at Centennial Hall on 10th Street.

“The cost of transporting recycling, the cost of sorting recyclables, the concerns about glass, none of those things are going to be addressed by February,” said Council Member Joella West. 

“Commercial recycling” refers to large-capacity receptacles — or dumpsters — and includes businesses and multi-family residential properties. The mandate would require multi-family and commercial properties to have a recycling receptacle with at least 50% of the capacity of their trash container. If implemented, the policy would be phased in over three years. Residential curbside pickup for recyclables is already mandated by the city. 

If passed, the ordinance would also make commercial entities pay for recycling services, but because the state passed the Extended Producer Responsibility Act requiring companies that produce and sell products in Colorado to pay for recycling their product packaging, those costs could soon be offset. The state has communicated to the city that Steamboat could be receiving money by 2026, though many details of the program are still being worked out.

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According to the 2020 Steamboat Springs Community Survey, 94% of residents support mandating recycling for multi-family properties and 72% strongly support it.

The recommendation to mandate commercial recycling originated from the city’s recycling study, which was published in January.

That study points to Aspen, Boulder, Fort Collins, Vail and Pitkin County, which have all mandated commercial recycling and have diversion rates at 29% or higher. 

The city’s diversion rate reflects the percentage of waste that gets diverted away from the landfill. In 2018, the diversion rate in Routt County was 23%. The diversion rate in Steamboat Springs, however, is estimated at 9%. 

“We have one of the lowest recycling rates in Colorado,” said Winn Cowman, waste diversion director for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. 

One of the goals of the Routt County Climate Action Plan is to increase the county’s diversion rate to 46% by 2030 and 85% by 2050. But there is some skepticism that mandating commercial recycling is feasible in Steamboat Springs. 

“If we lived in Denver and some other municipality that had these (materials recovery facilities) a whole lot closer, had some availabilities with different locations, I could be sold a whole lot easier,” said Council Member Michael Buccino. “But we live in an island in the mountains.”

Transporting recyclables, particularly glass, is also a concern for the folks at Twin Enviro Services, a provider of waste transportation, disposal and recycling services in Routt and Moffat counties. In addition to the economics of recycling, there are questions about how much it can help the environment if materials have to be transported long distances.

“No recycler pays to take glass,” said Les Liman, the owner of Twin Enviro. “And when you look at the fact that it’s so heavy and you put it in a truck and ship it, there’s just a lot of fuel burned. There’s a huge carbon footprint.”

He sees composting and aluminum as feasible for recycling, but Liman said glass frequently breaks while it’s being transported and contaminates the rest of the load. He said his company is willing and capable of accommodating the influx of commercial recycling the mandate would bring in, but he believes glass should be processed separately through local drop-off sites. 

Twin Enviro’s request to remove glass from the city’s single stream of curbside recyclables was one of the initial motivators for the city’s recycling study. While the study acknowledges that removing glass could save as much as $11,500 per year in costs, it still recommends keeping glass within the single stream. 

The study defends its recommendation by stating that Steamboat’s lack of drop-off sites for glass would make it difficult for residents to recycle glass. Additionally, diversion rates are low in places such as Summit County and Durango where glass is separated, and those municipalities’ efforts are accompanied with complicated public outreach and additional glass management costs.

Still, others see transporting glass as more sustainable than not recycling it.

“For glass, you can transport it as much as 1,150 miles before you lose the greenhouse gas benefits of recycling it,” said Winn Cowman, the Waste Diversion Director for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. 

According to the recycling study, about 70% of residents recycle, while waste haulers report that about 50% of multi-family and commercial waste generators recycle on their own. But, according to the study, many businesses only recycle cardboard. 

The study states that about half of the recyclables the city generates are commercial, but it’s also unrealistic to believe a mandate would bring all those recyclables into the fold.

Winnie DelliQuadri, the city’s special projects and intergovernmental services manager, said the policy would provide a “robust waiver process” to account for specific hardships, such as a property lacking space for an additional recycling container.

She said downtown would be the most difficult area to bring into compliance, though city staff are looking at developing recycling sites on city property that businesses can share. 

Council members Buccino, Crossan, Heather Sloop and Ed Briones supported tabling the discussion until February. Buccino was the only one who directly opposed the ordinance, while the other three said they wanted more public input. 

“I’m not against recycling at all,” Buccino said. “I just think that I’m against the mandate of recycling.”

Council members West, Gail Garey and Dakotah McGinlay voted against postponing the ordinance, saying they were ready to support it on first reading. 

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