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The government will pay you $30 an hour to sort through Telluride’s trash

Effort will help towns figure out how to change what people toss and why
Patrons of the Free Box located on North Pine Street in Telluride peruse a variety of used items from clothing to household items and everything inbetween. Dating back to the 1970s the Telluride Free Box has operated with the local ethos: take something, leave something. (William Woody/Special to the Colorado Sun)

Wanted in Telluride: a few good trash sorters.

These intrepid workers must be willing to sift through everything from diapers to dental floss, uneaten muffins to sushi scraps, abandoned clothing to junked electronics, rejected cosmetics to forsaken six packs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been advertising for workers to fill these $30-an-hour jobs as part of its latest dive into the state of refuse in a resort town that collects extra heaps of garbage in high-visitation seasons. The study is designed to get a better handle on seasonal variations in waste and to use that information to help change trash-tossing behaviors in the future.

Hired government researchers have been peering into the Telluride area’s trash for four years. Phase 1 of this trash study, called the “San Miguel County, Colorado Materials Characterization Report for Short-Term Condominium Rentals,” took a first look at what visitors to two mountain resort properties – one a luxe lodge and another a more affordable complex – tossed in the garbage in 2019 and 2021.

A team of sorters found in that first phase that 70% of the 8,000 pounds of trash collected during two peak visitor periods in the summer and winter seasons was items considered “recoverable.” Of all that recoverable waste, 24% was found to be recyclable and about 44% was compostable. That’s inching up on 2 tons of charcuterie-board rejects, pizza crusts, unfinished birthday cake and the remains of avocado toast.

The study suggested that about 5,600 pounds of all the trash going into trucks to be hauled long distances to landfills could be put to better use as recycled or composted products.

The EPA is now returning to complete the second-phase look at the garbage from the Franz Klammer Lodge, a posh hotel within a snowball’s throw of the Mountain Village ski lifts, and the more affordable Manitou Lodge and neighboring Riverside condos that share a waste station in the Town of Telluride.

This trash sorting puts garbage in 22 categories and isn’t strictly a scientific endeavor. It also aims to delve into the brains of those tossing the trash.

“This is pretty unique research,” said Virginia Till, the EPA’s sustainable materials management coordinator for the region that includes Colorado. “We are looking at how we impact resort areas in peak seasons. We are combining research through the trash study with the study of human behaviors.”

Ritzier clients, better recyclers

The initial phase of the EPA study found a few curiosities behind trash-can behaviors.

The ritzier property in the Mountain Village was the better recycler. About 27% of the trash was recycled at Franz Klammer. The Manitou Lodge visitors recycled only 9% during the same time period. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The transfer shed where Manitou visitors could dump their recyclables sat behind an ice and snow minefield during the winter portion of the study, likely skewing the numbers and telling researchers that recycling must be convenient.

Guests in the higher-end condos tossed out the most food waste – more than 34% of all that was tossed compared with just over 27% in the more moderately-priced properties. At the Franz Klammer Lodge, 80 pounds of food considered recoverable – never-opened stashes of items like cookies, pasta, produce and condiments – were chucked into the trash.

“This suggests that resorts represent a potentially significant source of food that might be donated to places like local food pantries,” Till said.

Since the first phase of the study, the owners at the Manitou and Riverside condos have put up more signs reminding people to recycle and made the bins more accessible. Owners at the Franz Klammer have opted to turn to front-line workers for trash-reducing measures by educating the housekeeping staff about recycling.

The EPA will be conducting training sessions for housekeeping this spring. The Franz Klammer also plans to set up a competition that will reward housekeepers who turn in the most pounds of recyclables.

May you sort interesting garbage

When the hired trash sorters don their gloves, masks and aprons, and begin rocking out to Oscar the Grouch’s “I Love Trash” song in mid-March (the tune is mentioned in the job posting), they will be helping to determine if any of the education efforts so far have made an impact.

San Miguel County Commissioner and longtime recycling advocate Kris Holstrum worked on the initial trash-sorting crew and is anxious to see what turns up in Phase 2.

She called the work “interesting.”

“Many stories are told through peoples’ trash,” she said. “Some are funny, like a kid’s birthday party, and some are like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go there.’”

Oscar the Grouch interacts with kids during a preview day at SeaWorld Orlando opening of Sesame Street land in Orlando, Florida, an addition to central Florida's theme park landscape aimed at young families. (John Raoux/Associated Press file)

Holstrum called people willing to sort trash – including herself – “a different breed.”

“You have to have a different mindset,” she said. “You have to be thinking about what we can do differently to effect change.”

Till said it is also important to have sorters who can deal with “the ick factor.”

She personally was able to do that by looking at the work from an anthropological or archaeological perspective.

“I never thought that I would be sorting through trash. I wanted to be an anthropologist,” she said. “But I have always been eco-minded. I am the type of person who loves to go to solid waste events and recycling conferences.”

Till no longer cringes at used personal hygiene and birth control products.

“The food can be a lot grosser,” she said.

Sometimes, things turn up that stop the flow of sorting at a waste transfer station in the Mountain Village – a pair of snow boots, a toaster oven, a $20 bill, Apple AirPods, cellphones.

Dreaming of a community without waste

The Telluride area was chosen for the EPA project out of half a dozen communities around the country that expressed an interest in participating in the trash-sorting study. San Miguel County, which encompasses Telluride and the Mountain Village, was chosen because it had the most experience, expertise and political will when it came to garbage, Till said.

Holstrum had gotten the Telluride trash-reduction ball rolling two decades ago when she convinced the promoters of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to place composting and recycling bins around the summer event that draws around 10,000 people each festival day to a town with 2,200 year-round residents.

Right off the bat, the festival collections provided a fascinating window into how people behave on vacation, Holstrum said. One of the most prominent insights: “There was evidence that some people waste a lot of food.”

That early recycling effort has led to numerous trash-reducing efforts in a place where waste is an added burden. Telluride is in a box canyon. All consumer goods hauled into the area must, at some point, be hauled out because there is no landfill in San Miguel County. Two waste hauling companies serve the area, picking up and driving garbage loads 50 to 60 miles to landfills near Montrose or Naturita.

A local nonprofit called EcoAction has tied many local trash-abatement efforts together. The group promotes recycling in the area through its Resource Recovery Program and by partnering with local municipalities and groups as well as the EPA to take on the trash issue.

San Miguel County, along with EcoAction Partners, this month was awarded a $243,497 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help with food waste reduction and composting.

Bruin Waste Management, one of the trash companies that service the Telluride area, recently applied for another grant that will help the company set up a separate hauling system for compostable materials.

The Town of Mountain Village has gone all in on resource recovery with its Zero Waste Action Plan. The plan aims to do just what the name implies: reach a point where all waste is recycled or composted. Recycling is already mandatory in the town’s municipal code. The target date for eliminating trash is 2050.

Lauren Kirn, who has served as the Town of Mountain Village environmental efficiencies and grant coordinator for the past two years, said composting is a top priority for the town of around 1,500 people.

She said the Mountain Village is providing receptacles for recycling and composting at the 220 affordable housing units in the village and is also taking on extra composting projects like collecting Halloween pumpkins.

Reusing and recycling since the 1970s

In the box canyon below, Telluride has earned fame for recycling since the 1970s with the Telluride Free Box. The wooden-shelved “box” set up just off the Colorado Avenue main drag downtown has been a place to leave and take used clothing, ski gear, books, pots and pans, toys, lamps and other treasures. It is often busy with “shoppers.”

It has also been a window into different mindsets behind recycling.

In recent years, the free box became a dumping ground for bags of junk, furniture and other unacceptable items, even though rules for what should be placed in the box are clearly posted. The town now spends around $50,000 a year to haul free-box trash to the dump and nearly discarded the whole Free Box concept.

The Free Box in the past few years has become a dumping ground causing Telluride to spend $50,000 a year to haul refuse away. (William Woody/Special to the Colorado Sun)

Till said linking all these efforts in an area that mostly takes its trash seriously enough that it is even willing to paw through its refuse, will help to advance the idea of controlling seasonally varied waste streams. She expects the knowledge gleaned from the Telluride-area trash will be spread to other resort areas and even to short-term rental properties.

Kirn, like Till, is particularly interested in the psychology aspect behind the mountains of trash that overflow from dumpsters and clog landfills.

“We’re really excited that the EPA is coming in to help us better understand our waste stream and help us look at behavioral interventions,” she said.

She appreciates that the best way to do that, according to the EPA study guidelines, is one banana peel, one dirty diaper and one pizza box at a time.

Workers for the mid-March sorting event are still needed.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.