In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha, my neighbor is on our HOA board and said they’re thinking of dropping our recycling program because it’s such a mess. There was a ton of trash in our recycling over the holidays, but I’m not sure if it’s the people who live here or visitors. Is there anything we can do to clean up our recycling?

It can be tough to teach others good recycling habits. And when you add guests who may only be staying a night or two, it gets even tougher.

That trash in your recycling containers? The industry calls this contamination, and it refers to anything that doesn’t belong in your recycling bin. Contamination can come in the form of unrinsed cans, bagged recycling, or plastic packaging and other materials that aren’t recyclable in Summit County.

A 2019 waste study revealed that Summit County’s contamination rate for single stream recycling is 38 percent, much higher than in similar mountain communities. So, what’s a dedicated recycler to do?

The case for reducing contamination

First, let’s take a quick look at the headaches caused by contamination. Quite simply, it can undermine everyone’s hard work. If a truckload of recycling is overly contaminated, the whole thing can end up in the trash. And even if a dirty load of recycling doesn’t get trashed, it increases the cost of recycling. Let me explain.

Single stream recycling collected at condos like yours is baled (yep – just like hay) and shipped to Denver where it’s sorted and sold. Even with the most advanced sorting machines on the planet, contamination is not quickly or easily sorted out. And some things, like plastic bags, can damage equipment.

The more trash in our recycling, the more time (and therefore money) it takes to sort. Higher costs at the point of sorting drive up the costs of local recycling programs, including the service at your condo!

Get to know your HOA board

Whether you’re at risk of losing your recycling program, or you’re simply trying to improve recycling where you live, get acquainted with the board of your homeowners’ association. Take steps to understand how the board has addressed recycling in the past, and whether the board is facing new challenges (like an unexpected contamination fee).

This could mean talking with your neighbor to see whether any recycling education or corrective action has occurred. Read minutes from past meetings to understand the board’s previous discussions. Find out when meetings take place and start attending them.

Let existing board members know that on-site recycling matters to you and offer to research local HOAs with successful recycling programs. If you know likeminded neighbors, encourage them to voice their concerns, too.

Get to know your space

By now, you could probably find the trash dumpster and recycling containers in your sleep. But think back to when you first moved in. Was the dumpster easy to find? How about the recycling bin? Are the bins clearly marked with recycling information or did you have to investigate? If there is information, is it bilingual? If recycling was difficult to figure out when you moved in, chances are good that your neighbors – and the overnight visitors – are confused, too.

I’m guessing you sort recycling from trash inside your condo. But if you were on vacation and didn’t have a recycling bin in your unit, you’d probably assume that recycling wasn’t available. Add to that a lack of clear recycling guidelines and a huge variety of people in the building, and it’s no wonder your HOA is facing recycling challenges.

Get professional advice

If you want people to recycle right, you have to set up systems that are helpful – not confusing. Not sure what solutions make the most sense? The folks at High Country Conservation Center work with HOAs across the county to improve recycling. Staff will schedule a call or a site visit and offer customized tips for improving recycling at your building. Get started by sending an email to info@highcountryconservation.org.

HOAs that participate in the Resource Wise sustainable business program can get money back for projects that improve recycling on the property. Even better? It’s all free for most HOAs.  And hopefully, that’s an offer your HOA will have a hard time refusing.

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