Trying to keep it clean

Ambassadors go through recycling bins seeking ‘contaminants’

Matt Racette, a “recycling ambassador” for the city of Durango, checks a container in front of a home along 32nd Street. Residents sometimes toss in glass and other items that aren’t accepted in single-stream bins. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Matt Racette, a “recycling ambassador” for the city of Durango, checks a container in front of a home along 32nd Street. Residents sometimes toss in glass and other items that aren’t accepted in single-stream bins.

City workers recently uncovered a stash of pornographic magazines in a Durango-issued recycle container awaiting pickup.

Matt Racette appreciated the uninhibited environmentalism.

“If you’re going to recycle, you’re doing the right thing,” said Racette, who is one the city’s two “recycling ambassadors” along with Tim Graham.

Racette and Graham check the curbside recycle containers for potential contaminants such as glass, plastic bags, Styrofoam, unwashed cans and garbage, sometimes plucking out misplaced Kitty Litter and learning a lot about local drinking habits.

Racette said Durango has developed a taste for Pinnacle Whipped Vodka.

“It’s really rampant in this town,” Racette said.

Neither thought much of looking through another’s recyclables, toilet-paper rolls and all.

“Every once in a while, people will watch you. It feels kind of awkward,” Graham said. “Sometimes they ask what you’re doing. They’re just curious when they see you looking through there.”

Working about an hour ahead of the pickup time, their goal is to keep the contaminants out of the city trucks that scoop up the recyclables.

Under the city’s new system of single-stream recycling, recyclables such as plastics, aluminum and paper are compacted into bales to be sorted later and sold as commodities.

Keeping recyclables safe for sale is a tall order because the city has delivered about 20 truckloads, or 440 tons, of recyclables since the single-stream recycling program began in February.

Shattered glass can spoil the load, making it useless for potential buyers, said Dale Cogswell, the city’s solid waste manager.

Plastic bags are bad because they jam the baler and cause a “range of mechanical difficulties,” said Mary Beth Miles, the city’s sustainability director.

Cogswell advises consumers to just follow the directions attached to every recycling container.

Before the program began, Cogswell said, “We knew there would be issues. (Parents) send out junior. Junior is going to be lazy, and he dumps everything in the first can he comes to. I’m not saying that’s everybody, but it does happen.”

Not putting glass in the containers was a big problem at first, but people are getting the hang of it, city workers said.

The city realizes it’s easy to forget or passers-by might also contaminate a recycling bin on the street that they mistake for a garbage can.

If there are too many contaminants to pick out, Racette and Graham will wheel the containers back onto the driveway and leave a note for the consumer to fix, hopefully in time before the truck arrives.

There are no plans to fine repeat offenders, Miles said.

Now that city residents are getting the hang of single-stream recycling, Cogswell wishes out-of-towners would pay more attention when they take their stuff to drop-off sites around Durango.

Someone recently stuffed a used mattress into a drop-off container, contaminating all the recyclables inside.

To expedite sorting from drop-off containers, Miles urges consumers to separate their cardboard and glass into the appropriately marked bins.

Once expansion and renovations are completed at the Recycling Center on Tech Center Drive sometime this summer, noncity residents will have to take most of their recyclables there as the drop off-sites around town will transition primarily to taking glass.

Cogswell anticipates that the ambassadors eventually will be phased out of their roles, too.

But Graham sees another big challenge ahead, in the short term, at least.

In early April, the city will deliver a second batch of recycle containers to residents. The delivery of 657 additional containers will bring the total number of household participants to 2,675, or about 60 percent of Durango households, Miles said.

More participants will mean more people to teach about single-stream recycling, Graham said.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

Recycling ambassador Matt Racette fills out a tag describing the improper items he found in a single-stream container. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Recycling ambassador Matt Racette fills out a tag describing the improper items he found in a single-stream container.

Stacked cardboard awaits crushing and binding at the Durango Recycling Center before being shipped. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Stacked cardboard awaits crushing and binding at the Durango Recycling Center before being shipped.

Recycling ambassador Matt Racette checks a single-stream container. Racette found glass in the container, so he removed it from the street and attached a notice for the resident. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Recycling ambassador Matt Racette checks a single-stream container. Racette found glass in the container, so he removed it from the street and attached a notice for the resident.

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