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More cash to stash our trash

Article by Ed Quillen

March 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

For most rural scrounge artists, a trip to the dump used to offer one big challenge — could you come back with less than you took?

Then came a host of regulations, designed to protect us from ourselves, and one result was that most dumps posted big signs that said “NO SCAVENGING.” Enforcement varied with the diligence of the bulldozer crew, but it seemed ironic that society would discourage voluntary informal recycling.

Another challenge came recently — paying for the trip. A pickup load of household rubbish, formerly free to deposit at the local landfill, can now eat up a $20 bill.

The increased charges, “tip fees,” come about as counties prepare to meet federal regulations that take effect on April 9.

Any landfill accepting trash after that date must have an impermeable liner to keep toxic compounds from seeping into groundwater. To make sure the liner is working, monitoring wells will be drilled around the landfill, and water from those wells will be tested regularly.

These requirements substantially raise the cost of operating a landfill, and counties in central Colorado have responded in several ways that generally end up taking more money out of your pocket — in Chaffee County, for instance, tip fees went from free to $6.50 per cubic yard.

Fremont County got out of the landfill business. Several small dumps were closed, and trash now goes to a privately owned transfer station east of Canon City, where it is assembled into loads for a landfill in El Paso County. Park County does the same thing, except it runs the transfer station.

Chaffee and Lake counties have, in essence, built new landfills, although they’re adjacent to the old facilities. Custer County is building a new landfill that comes on line this spring. In all cases, dumping trash costs more.

Given our Western traditions — rugged individualism and minimal social responsibility — it seems logical that, faced with increased fees at the legal dump, more people would deposit their trash along the highway, or in a convenient ravine on public land.

But so far, that hasn’t happened. Ann Ewing, a Forest Service ranger in Salida, says the main problem is second-home owners using the Dumpsters at campgrounds for household trash. Other ranger districts report much the same thing, although Leadville and Fairplay speculate that there might be more dumping down old mine shafts these days.

Along the back roads, the BLM increased patrols when dump fees rose, but didn’t find any increase in illegal dumping. Along the main roads, the Collegiate Peaks chapter of Trout Unlimited has adopted 11 miles of highway, and its volunteers haven’t noticed any substantial increase in roadside litter.

So in general, we’re behaving ourselves, and nowhere is this more true than in Saguache County, where, as Forest Ranger Jim Maminet observed, “people feel good about our landfill, and they support it.”

Make a wish list for how a rural landfill should be operated, and odds are that you’ll find every item in Saguache County.

Recycling? They’ve got bins or tanks for paper, cardboard, clear glass, green glass, brown glass, aluminum, tin cans, batteries, motor oil — just about everything except light bulbs and mattresses, which no one has yet figured out how to recycle.

About once a month, a truck from Reclaimed Resources comes through; that company sells the material to recycles, and shares the proceeds with the county.

Re-Use? Scrounging is encouraged. There’s a wood pile to feed local stoves. Old tires are a big problem at most dumps, but people haul them away from Saguache to build innovative houses in Crestone or a bull pen on a ranch near Villa Grove.

A row of old appliances and bicycles provides spare parts to keep others running, and sometimes there are working machines. There’s also a compost pile for yard waste, with free compost for the hauling.

Reasonable Fees? To encourage people to use the landfill, rates for county residents are set low — a pickup load is $1.50.

If you bring anything for recycling, you get a 50c discount, and if all your load can be recycled (that is, it’s all sorted, cleaned, and bundled), then there’s no tip fee.

In operation SINCE 1990, the Saguache landfill meets all state and federal regulations. Although there is income from recycling, about $100 a month, and from tip fees, it isn’t self-supporting. Brad Jones, county administrator, estimates the annual subsidy from general county funds at $5 per resident — about $20,000 a year, but “that doesn’t include depreciation for capital equipment.”

Ellen Cox, county recycling coordinator, says that 1993 was the first year they kept good records. The goal was to divert 20% of the material that would normally get buried in a landfill, and “we’re well over that.” Especially in the loads from Crestone, where more than 80% goes to recycling, rather than the landfill.

Such success takes more than just staffing the landfill, Cox says. “We work with service clubs to place recycling bins in towns, and we even run school field trips. We’ve got a lot of community involvement, and we’re always looking for ways to increase it.”

Could the Saguache system — about as close to ideal as a rural landfill operation can get — work elsewhere?

Saguache County doesn’t have many commercial haulers, so people were used to going to the dump. If you’re making your own loads, it’s not that much more effort to clean, sort, and bundle your refuse.

But where there are commercial haulers, the process gets complicated, as Boulder learned. Is Monday glass day or paper day, and does the metal go into the red barrel or the blue barrel? Unless you’re quite dedicated, trash tends to slide into the nearest Hefty bag.

Thus most counties in central Colorado, forced to build new landfills, have just raised rates and otherwise continued business as usual.

However, Custer County will open a new landfill this spring, and the county administrator there said “We’re going to use Saguache as a model. It’s the kind of operation we want to run.”