Waste study looks at what Mesa County residents throw away, but could recycle

Barrett Jensen talks trash at the Mesa County Fair while Lane Trehearne 14, puts on a backpack that is weighted to show how much trash a typical Mesa County resident discards in a week. Barrett wants to bring awareness to recycling and how better to extend the life of the Mesa County landfill.

Barrett Jensen wants to talk trash.

You've probably seen him at events wearing his "waste vest," a fluorescent safety vest with various bits of garbage attached to it.

Maybe he invited you to carry around a backpack filled with kitty litter approximating the weight of the trash each Mesa County resident typically throws away in a week, an educational tool he used at the Mea County Fair just last week.

"People think I'm crazy," he said. "I can see it in their eyes."

But he doesn't care. He's on a mission to educate.

Jensen, who came to work as the county's solid waste manager about a year ago from Pitkin County, is determined to find out what Mesa County is throwing into the landfill and to encourage residents to take the first step in reducing their contributions to what will be an expensive undertaking for taxpayers.

Jensen and his staff started a waste study last month, funded by a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The study will provide information on exactly what types of materials are being thrown away at households, trucked to the landfill and buried forever in the facility, taking up space that is quickly running out.

Landfill officials suspect about 65 percent of the waste thrown away at the facility each year could be re-used, recycled or composted. If that happened, it would reduce the rate of trash coming into the landfill, extending the life of the facility, which has a limited amount of space remaining.

If Mesa County residents continue throwing trash away at the current rate, the facility will reach full capacity in 24 years. When that happens, the county will be faced with paying for a new facility, a significant cost to taxpayers.

The landfill recently invested in a new liner covering only 4 acres of the facility, which cost more than $1 million, Jensen said.

"Right now we're projected to see 10,000 more tons of trash than we did last year at the landfill," he said. If that trend continues, the landfill will fill faster.

So anything Jensen and other waste-management officials can do to educate people and to avoid contributing more trash to the landfill has the potential to save space and money in the long run.

Diverting recyclables from the landfill is a perplexing thought to some of the people Jensen talks to during his recycling spiels.

Some think recycling should be free, because they know it's a good idea, but they don't understand it costs money to deal with. It's easier just to throw it all away.

"Someone has to pay for it," he said. "Trash isn't free. Neither is recycling."

Although recycling companies are able to recoup costs by gathering sorted materials and selling them to be milled and transformed into other products, it still takes people, space, time and energy to make that happen, which costs money.

Recycling is available through trash services, usually for a small fee, and most companies will take certain plastics, newsprint, aluminum, steel and glass. Each company has its own rules for sorting and may change what they accept because of the fluctuating recyclables market.

Free recycling drop-off also is available at the Curbside Recycling Indefinitely location at the Grand Junction City Shops, 333 West Ave.

The initial sort for the waste study happened last month over the course of six days. Participants sorted through bags of trash, talking to the trash truck drivers to make sure they weren't just getting loads from the same neighborhoods so they could get a representative sample.

They opened the bags, sorting the trash piece by piece and categorizing it to determine how much of each item was thrown away. Each day they sorted 600 pounds of trash.

The trash sorting was conducted by volunteers, landfill staff and representatives from Curbside Recycling Indefinitely and some refuse companies, including Commercial Refuse Service, Jensen said.

The study results will show how much of each type of material was thrown away.

Mesa County's trash habits are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to how much is thrown away and how little is recycled. According to 2013 statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away about 4.4 pounds of trash per person, per day. In Mesa County, that number is 6.7 pounds of trash per person, per day.

If there's one thing Jensen has learned from looking at Mesa County's household trash so far, it is that there are an awful lot of water bottles coming into the landfill, a frustrating thing for him because they're recyclable.

"We're not recycling the easy stuff right now," he said.

Are there things that really belong in the landfill? Sure, Jensen says. In the waste study, volunteers have found things such as tortilla chip bags, dog poop, Q-tips and used Kleenex. There's no recycling market for those kinds of things.

But so far, it seems those pale in comparison to the items that could have been diverted from the waste stream in the first place.

Plans are in the works to pursue textile recycling or re-use, with fabrics that could be turned into other products such as rags, Jensen said.

He's talking with a roofing company that might be interested in recycling roof tiles, and other companies that might be able to re-use or resell construction materials headed to the landfill after demolition.

The grant also covers waste studies in Delta and Montrose, which have already kicked off, and one in Gunnison happening Aug. 9. The grant, worth $86,000, was awarded by the state health department and pays for a consultant to compile data and other costs associated with developing a report on the waste study.

Jensen already is looking forward to the second round of sorting trash, scheduled for September, in which more data will be collected and compiled to obtain results.

He invites any volunteers who would like to help to contact him at the landfill or by emailing him at Jeffrey.jensen@mesacounty.us.

"What better way to get to know your community than by digging through its trash?" he said.

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