Recycling still works when it’s done right

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Teton County’s Road to Zero Waste is going to be an uphill climb. Still, it’s no time to get discouraged about recycling.

That’s the message from the folks at Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling (ISWR). They are doubling down on their plea to the public: Please, do your part.

Mounds of cardboard. The Recycling Center staff spends all day every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday doing nothing but sorting through cardboard to make sure that’s all that is in there. (Carrie Bell, ISWR)

First off, the elephant in the room. Teton County generates an enormous amount of trash. A booming economy, the nature of a tourist town—blame what you will but the Road to Zero Waste campaign is not going to be an easy one. July 2019 was a record-setter for garbage—3,760 tons worth to be exact. Never has the trash transfer station experienced volume like that for a one-month period.

But without recycling and various reduce/reuse efforts (which are difficult to track), July’s numbers could have been even more eye-popping. Carrie Bell, Waste Diversion and Outreach Coordinator with ISWR, says the county’s diversion rate stands at about 30%, meaning nearly a third of the total waste produced in Teton County never gets to the landfill.

That’s pretty good…considering.

Recycling is not easy. Several factors make it a challenge anywhere in the world. But in Teton County, despite what you might read in the headlines today, recycling still works.

Perhaps you’ve heard that recycling today is a failed endeavor. Recycling plastics, for instance, has been touted as more energy-expensive than it’s worth. The market for other recyclables is also experiencing a significant crash. There are simply too few buyers and they have become very choosey about what they will accept.

“Don’t believe any rumors about the Recycling Center landfilling recyclables because it simply isn’t true. Don’t let the national news discourage you from recycling in Teton County because our system is a system that works,” Bell says. “Even though prices for commodities are at an all-time low, we are still able to sell all of our recyclables. In fact, other communities are looking to our program as an example of something that works in a difficult market.”

That’s where you come in.

A lot of the success has to do with what happens before that Coke can or Amazon packaging ever hits the recycling facility. ISWR maintains strong working relationships with vendors because they trust our stuff is clean. That takes hours and hours of painstaking sorting that begins at ground zero at the recycling bins around the valley.

“Easy recycling doesn’t work. Recycling is hard,” Bell says. “But our community does an amazing job of keeping the contamination level very low.”

A major reason why ISWR’s recycling program is succeeding where others are not is a dedication to source separating—each item is sorted into its own bin. Every piece of material brought to the Recycling Center that is clean and dry is sorted by hand and prepared for recycling.

Sorters at the Recycling Center have been finding bizarre and sometimes dangerous items mixed in with recyclables that should never be there. (Neal Henderson)

Careless practices in discarding our recyclables slow the process. It can also put real people at real risk.

“Recently the recycling crew has found items like used syringes, soiled toilet paper, and dog poo bags in our recycling,” Bell says. “Not only does this pose a threat to the health and safety of the recycling crew, it also has the potential to contaminate an otherwise clean load of recyclables, rendering them as trash.”

This means that plastic wrap or Styrofoam packaging you left inside a cardboard box has to be picked out by hand at the sorting facility. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, workers do nothing but sort through corrugated carboard material to make sure that is all that is baled up for delivery. If even one scrap of plastic gets past sorters and is noticed by a recyclable buyer, the entire bale is thrown away as trash.

Bell says she is especially concerned with material that could be a danger to staff. Safe disposal of medical waste such as syringes and medicines is extremely important. Public Health sells containers for syringes and has a medicine donation program. Town Hall also has a medicine dropbox.

As a reminder that real people do real hands-on work at the facility, Bell says ISWR will soon be adding visual wraps to the back of recycling trailers that feature the men and women who sort through our cans, bottles, and cardboard to make sure it is as clean as can be.

It is the only way recycling works and, in Teton County, it is working.

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