Steamboat’s waste diversion rate has jumped 60% since 2018, but it’s still not great |

Steamboat’s waste diversion rate has jumped 60% since 2018, but it’s still not great

Steamboat's diversion rate of 14.4% is below Colorado average and less than half the national average

Several glass bottles sit inside of a recycling bin. Although local waste diversion is on the rise, the numbers remain well short of the city's long-range goals.
John F. Russell/Steamboat PIlot & Today

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to say the data came from all five trash haulers that operate in Steamboat Springs.

Since it was studied in 2018, Steamboat Springs’ diversion rate — a measure of how much waste is kept out of a landfill through recycling or composting — has increased by 60%.

But while that’s an impressive increase percentage-wise, the jump from 9% waste diverted as previously estimated to 14.4% in the last three months of 2022 is well short of the city’s long-term goals. That goal, part of the Routt County Climate Action Plan, is 46% waste diverted by the end of the decade.

“It’s going to be a hard stretch,” said Alicia Archibald, Steamboat’s community recycling coordinator. “There are not many communities in the state of Colorado or in the country that have a diversion rate that high.”

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the nationwide diversion rate is around 32%. In Colorado, things are half that, with the statewide diversion rate being just 16%, according to a 2022 State of Recycling in Colorado report.

Steamboat’s 14.4% diversion rate comes from data reported to the city by the five local haulers. Of all waste produced, 12.2% of that is recycled and 2.2% is composted. The other 85.6% of waste ends up in a landfill.

Steamboat has had an ordinance that required trash haulers to provide a recycling can when they offered trash cans for residential clients. The city just passed a new commercial recycling ordinance that starts the process to require businesses and multi-family residences to recycle as well. Archibald said these requirements should help continue to see an increase in diversion rate.

“It won’t happen overnight, but we should see continued change just from that ordinance,” Archibald said. “With the outreach that I’m doing, I think we’re going to see a lot of change.”

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A positive sign from the new diversion data is that Steamboat had a low contamination rate of just 15.6%. Archibald said that is really low — communities often average between 25% and 35%. She had been assuming the contamination rate could be as high as 40% before receiving this data.

The contamination rate is a measure of how much material that is recycled is actually diverted toward recycling once brought to the materials recovery facility or MRF. One reason the contamination rate is low could be because contaminated cans of recycling are never making it to that facility.

“If a load is highly contaminated, the hauler doesn’t pick it up,” Archibald said. “It’s great that what we’re sending to the MRF is clean, but what are we missing?”

One of the most common forms of contamination is bagged recycling, which refers to people who put their recyclables in a trash bag and then place the whole bag in the can. Archibald said it is better to put recycling in the can loose, making it easier for it to be sorted once at the recovery facility.

Food and liquids are another common contaminant, Archibald said. If not cleaned off, both of these have the potential to significantly contaminate other recyclables, Archibald said. This includes rinsing out ketchup bottles or emptying a bottle of soda before recycling it.

“Not only does it stink when it is in your can and can draw bugs and rodents and wildlife, it can definitely mess up some of the other materials that are in the bin with it,” Archibald said.

Recycling receptacles should have stickers on them to outline what materials are recyclable or not. Archibald said if residents are confused, they should reach out to her or their hauler to talk about it. For example, paper coffee cups and plastic bags are not recyclable. While many facilities will accept pizza boxes, Archibald said in Steamboat it is best to remove the top of the box for recycling and toss the greasy bottom part in the trash.

But Steamboat won’t be able to hit the 46% diversion rate by the 2030 goal, or the 85% diversion rate by the 2050 goal outlined in the Routt County Climate Action Plan by recycling alone, Archibald said. Another key aspect of diversion is composting, which Steamboat is not so great at.

Based on a 2018 diversion study for Northwest Colorado, about 30% of the waste stream is organic material, but just 2.2% of waste is being diverted through composting right now.

The city is trying to spur more composting by offering free kitchen composting pails for residents who sign up for composting through the two local options, Twin Enviro or Cowgirl Compost.

“We’re not going to get where we need to go by just removing recyclables,” Archibald said. “We can probably get 60% to 70% of the way there, but we’re going to have to divert organics as well.”

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