Ask Eartha: How to Make Sense of Recycling in Summit County

Recycling in Summit County can be confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. Use the resources of the High Country Conservation Center for help.
High Country Conservation Center / Courtesy Photo

Dear Eartha, I thought I has been a great recycler, but I recently discovered that I may be putting items in my recycling bin that don’t belong. Why is recycling in Summit County so confusing?

Recycling shouldn’t be so confusing. But it’s thanks to years of the plastics industry that made us believe that everything is recyclable.. So let’s start with the basics – what makes an item recyclable. For an item to be truly recyclable, it must be able to be turned into something new. But just because an object can be turned into something new doesn’t mean it necessarily will. Recycling is a business – and it may not always make good business (or environmental) sense to ship all of your recyclables from Summit County to where those items are turned into new materials, which who could be on the other side of the world.

Think Fleece: Facilities that make high-quality fleece from recycled plastic need enough good plastic bottles — clean, not mixed with a bunch of other plastics — to support the manufacturing of millions of fleece sweaters. . The good news is that more and more plastic recycling facilities, called end markets, are opening stores in the United States. And now they are encouraged to choose Colorado as a home base. Let’s dig a little deeper and get back to your original question.

2 ways to recycle, 2 different directives

There are two ways to recycle in Summit County: single-stream recycling and free recycling centers. Here’s how each system works.

Recycling centers are free to Summit County residents who self-separate their recyclables. This is called “source separated” recycling. Since residents separate themselves before dropping them off, these items do not need to be sorted at a facility and can instead be compacted into bales at Summit County Resource Allocation Park (the local landfill and facility recycling) and sold directly to end markets by purchasing pre-sorted materials.

Single-stream recycling involves a shared recycling bin or recycling dumpster that is picked up by a waste hauler. These mixed materials also go to the allotment yard, where they are compacted into bales together and sent to a larger sorting facility in Denver. Materials are sorted and sold in end markets to make new items from your old plastic bottles, newspapers, etc.

Often, mountain and rural communities do not have the infrastructure to sort and separate single-stream recycling, which is why these materials go elsewhere to be processed. Larger, more sophisticated facilities can sort and store, and therefore accept a greater variety of materials (think boulder county). However, no matter how sophisticated the installation, it doesn’t change the fact that glass shatters when smashed in a truck with other recyclables. By separating glass from the single stream, as we do in Summit County, we preserve the quality of glass and all of our other recyclables. The good news is that when you follow the ruleseverything is recycled.

Mixed messages

Have you ever had a date that left you wondering if they liked you or not? Well, that’s how I feel about some recycling posts. Most of us grew up with the same understanding: if an item has the recycling symbol on it, it can be recycled. I hate to burst your bubble, but that’s not always true. The recycling symbols and numbers on many plastic items – called resin codes – were created as a green marketing tool by major oil companies to make consumers feel more comfortable with their plastic consumption since virgin plastic is made from petroleum. But don’t turn to these numbers to answer your burning questions about recycling – they only identify what material the material is made from, not whether it’s recyclable.

Unfortunately, there are no national regulations or consistency when it comes to recycling. Just because your 5 gallon bucket is recyclable somewhere in the world doesn’t mean it’s recyclable in Summit County. Keep in mind that plastics, unlike endlessly recyclable aluminum cans or glass, degrade each time they are recycled and end up as waste.


Still confused? To familiarise with Summit County Recycling Guidelines and Recycling Finder. Work with the High Country Conservation Center to improve recycling at your home or homeowners association. Bring your toughest questions to Block Recycling Experts, a weekly event that helps residents understand what is recyclable. And remember, when in doubt, find it out or throw it out.

Allie Flynn

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff of the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit your questions to Eartha at [email protected]


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