Roughly one-third of the trash entering the Mesa County Landfill is recyclable, according to preliminary results from a waste study conducted earlier this year. And another third of the waste contributing to the landfill is also something that doesn't have to take up space at a facility filling up fast, according to landfill managers.

The results of a waste survey conducted over two separate weeks in the spring and fall this year show trash collected by refuse companies from homes and dumpsters in Mesa County has a high amount of food waste and cardboard, among other materials. But the most obvious result in the study is that a lot of recyclable materials are being tossed instead of diverted from the waste stream headed to a forever home in the landfill.

"Our big takeaway with this is when you just look at compostable and recyclable material, almost 60 percent (of the waste surveyed) was recyclable or compostable," said Barrett Jensen, solid waste manager. "And 33.5 percent of that was recyclable, and that's really, really high."

Jensen said he wasn't surprised by the results, and they confirmed what he suspected — more than 60 percent of the contributions to the landfill could be recycled, composted or re-used.

"I've had people say, there can't be that much," he said. "Well, there it is."

The waste audit involved intercepting trash as it came to the landfill and sorting it into 32 different categories, weighing it and recording the data. Volunteers sorted roughly 600 pounds of trash a day, over the course of two weeks in June and September.

Mesa County obtained a grant for the waste study from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, with the idea of examining what the community contributes to the landfill in order to develop a game plan for identifying next steps in reducing the volume of waste that goes to the facility. At this time, the current capacity of the landfill is expected to only last Mesa County another 24 years. Available space equals money, and every bit of trash contributed to the landfill pushes the county closer to the end of this landfill's lifespan.

Managers have said they don't think the current location can expand farther, primarily due to the proximity to the Gunnison River. That means choosing a new location for a landfill, a lengthy permitting process and upfront costs for liners and other environmental requirements.

"The longer we can postpone this landfill closing the longer time we have to plan and pay for our next step in the waste management process," Jensen said. Only this year, the landfill spent more than $1 million on a liner for just 4 acres of the facility, a drop in the bucket when compared with the cost of a new facility.

The price tag for a new landfill won't just be expensive for Mesa County taxpayers, Jensen said. Waste-management companies who collect residential and commercial trash and truck it to the landfill in Whitewater already have a commute that costs fuel. And the cost for a new landfill will likely mean an increase in tipping fees, which could be passed on to customers who pay for trash service with these companies. Jensen said representatives from all the trash-hauling companies have been present at meetings about the waste study.

"They're on board with tackling this issue as a group and not as separate entities," Jensen said.

Jensen estimates that if one-third of the current waste stream, represented by those recyclables measured in the study, could be diverted from the landfill, the lifespan could increase by another eight years, if the rest of the waste contributions remained steady.

"If we can push this off by eight more years, it would give us that much more time to save money," he said.

Jensen said he hopes people get involved and take the waste problem seriously.

"It's 10 to 15 years too late," he said. "It's time to pay attention now."

Though free recycling is offered at Curbside Recycling, Indefinitely at the Grand Junction City Shops, and some trash companies offer it for a small fee, it's not available with all the trash-hauling services in Mesa County.

At this point, Jensen said he plans on digesting the information in the report, prepared by consultants Souder, Miller and Associates, and coming up with some ideas to put in action next year. This will likely include identifying barriers to recycling and composting in Mesa County and coming up with possible solutions.

Recycle Colorado, formerly called the Colorado Association for Recycling, is planning to hold a meeting in January to discuss next steps with interested community members after the official waste study results are presented. Jensen said a Western Slope council is in the works for the organization.

Anyone who wants to be added to the mailing list for that upcoming meeting can email her at laurie@cafr.org.

The waste audit also included trash sorting in Montrose County, which showed 67 percent of its trash was compostable or recyclable, Delta County, which had 63 percent of its trash recyclable or compostable, and Gunnison County, which had about 64 percent of its trash classified as compostable or recyclable.