The good news was announced last September: after running the always-busy Boulder County Recycling Center for some 16 years, Eco-Cycle was given a unanimous thumbs-up by members of the Boulder County Commission to continue its work.
Before the vote was official, County Commissioner Deb Gardner said that Eco-Cycle’s management of the center had given to the public the “kind of recycling system we want to have,” adding that the company had “run that facility in a way that makes us proud to have a community-based recycling center.”
For residents of the City of Boulder and larger Boulder County, the long and diverse record of Eco-Cycle and its ever-growing scope and mission has been a thing of wonder.
Founded in 1976, the company, notes author Paul Connett in his book The Zero Waste Solution, “is one of the oldest and largest non-profit recyclers in the United States. “
It is also one of, if not the, most comprehensive recycling efforts in the country.
One of the reasons for the company’s success, thinks executive director Suzanne Jones, is that Eco-Cycle’s focus has always been on the entire community.
Noting that Eco-Cycle has assiduously built relationships with local governments, area schools, businesses, and neighborhoods, Jones maintains that “Everyone in a community has a role to pay and everyone needs to have access to services so that they can recycle, compost, repair, and reuse their stuff instead of landfilling it.”
“Our hands-on approach lends itself to community-wide education and sharing of ideas about the best ways to reduce waste and to shift our collective thinking about how to use the Earth’s limited natural resources more equitably and sustainably.”
Every year the company, managing a modern steel facility on the east side of the city of Boulder that processes more than 45,000 tons of recyclable materials, also runs an ancillary Center for Hard to Recycle Materials that processes up to 2 million pounds of material annually.
“We are not a waste management or for-profit company,” says Harlin Savage, director of communications for Eco-Cycle. “What we are about instead is to build zero waste communities here and everywhere else.”
With a staff of more than 60 people, Eco-Cycle also has an extensive education outreach program designed to teach upcoming generations about the value and importance of recycling.
“We use traditional business activities such as operating our recycling center,” continues Savage, “and we also haul recycling, composting, and trash from commercial operations and businesses locally.”
Savage continues: “We then take the money we make over and above the cost of operations and use that to support our schools program.”
“Recycling just paper and aluminum cans is a thing of the past,” noted reporter Boonsri Dickinson in a profile of Eco-Cycle for the Boulder Daily Camera.
“The more profitable materials such as white paper, cardboard, and aluminum help pay for the costs of recycling the hard-to-recycle materials,” said Dickinson. “All those plastic bags go into plastic lumber for decks and piers, for example.”
The existence of the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, otherwise known as CHaRM, has intensified Eco-Cycle’s work by taking in even such previously recycle-resistant materials as bikes and bike parts as well as political yard signs made of corrugated plastic.
Eco-Cycle started out with the work of a Peter Grogan, a University of Colorado student, who launched the area’s first curbside recycling service.
Grogan had the idea that if someone in a given neighborhood was recycling, that person could maybe talk to his or her neighbors about the value of doing so, thus continually expanding Eco-Cycle’s reach.
“Eventually, he was driving around in a repurposed yellow school bus,” says Savage, “the seats were taken out and he and volunteers went around town picking up recyclables like newspapers and aluminum.”
“From there, the idea just really caught on,” Savage adds.
In an industry where demand can sometimes determine success or failure, notes Sam Lounsberry in the Longmont Times Call, “the technology and business model employed by the Boulder Recycling Center operated by Eco-Cycle has kept the mixes of material it produces desirable amidst a market fallout for recycled products made in many other parts of the globe.”
One of the reasons the company has endured the market ups and downs for recyclable materials is the condition of those materials: “We want our recyclables to be as clean as possible,” says Savage.
Because the company emphasizes the value of maintaining what it calls a “clean waste stream,” its residual numbers, the percentage of materials that can’t be re-used, is admirably low.
“The standard industry average is around 25 to 40 percent,” reports Savage, “ours is 10 percent or less.”
Meanwhile, Eco-Cycle’s potential for increasing capacity continues to grow. Late last year, two new plastic optical sorting units were installed in the Boulder County Recycling Center, technology now allowing the facility to recover and process a big 95 percent of the mixed plastics it receives, 90 percent of the aluminum, and 98 percent of other targeted materials.
By Garry Boulard
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