When GOALZERO was hitting on all cylinders, the recycling social-enterprise nonprofit was getting $300 a ton for its truckloads of cardboard.
“Last month I sent out a truck of cardboard and got $90 a ton,” said Stacy Poore, chief operating officer with Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, which runs GOALZERO. “It’s not sustainable.”
What operated as a for-profit spin-off before being pulled under Care and Share’s nonprofit umbrella will be closing its doors for good May 25, marking the end of free commercial recycling opportunities in Colorado Springs. But the closure points to a larger problem in the industry, according to local experts. The return on investment for recycling companies appears to be growing smaller — and during a time when more and more people are demanding the service.
China grows picky
Free recycling programs have had a hard go in Colorado Springs. Waste Management’s public facility near the former greyhound racetrack on 4th Street, northeast of Nevada Avenue and Fillmore Street, closed in 2015, largely because of associated costs. And GOALZERO’s closure may mean more local residents and businesses will have to pay for recycling.
According to Laurie Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling, China can be blamed for many of the industry’s headaches.
“China is taking in a lot less material than it used to,” Johnson said. “And that originated from so many loads coming from Western cultures that were so contaminated.”
Contamination often means non-recyclable materials are thrown in with those that can be recycled. Often the entire load, recyclables and all, are sent to a landfill. Johnson said, because so many separate companies sell recycling services in Colorado, those seeking services can become confused as to which materials are allowed.
“Colorado does have a number of hurdles,” she said. “Lots of those are because of legislation or policy — because our state is kind of a no-mandate state. There aren’t a lot of mandates in Colorado. It’s not like California.”
The national average for recycling is about 34 percent, according to Johnson. That’s the amount of trash set aside for reuse. The average for the state is around 12 percent, with Denver recycling about a fifth of its trash. Colorado Springs comes in at 8 percent, Johnson said.
Why is Colorado Springs near the bottom?
“It comes back to how conservative the community is,” Johnson said. “This really is about economics. Our association now speaks to the economics of recycling. If it doesn’t make economic sense, people won’t do it.”
But the impact to the economy goes beyond sustainable resources and creating jobs. Businesses and workforces looking to relocate will consider amenities such as recycling, Johnson said.
“The city and county are probably not going to step up, but they are becoming far more open-minded in that there needs to be these programs to attract economic development opportunities and Millennials,” she said.
A bad reputation
El Paso County is now the only entity in the Pikes Peak region that accepts residential recycling for free, but its capacity is limited.
The El Paso County Household Hazardous Waste Facility, located at 3255 Akers Drive, takes residential recycling Wednesday and Friday from 7 a.m.-4:45 p.m., or until the bins are full.
But Kathy Andrew, El Paso County Community Services Department Environmental Division manager, said the facility’s main mission is to divert household hazardous waste from landfills.
The trash recycling program is more an afterthought, she said.
“We do have a recycling program for residents by registration only,” she said. “The individual has to come and register and read through our rules and regulations and agree that what they bring to recycling is exactly what we accept.”
The program routinely fills its bins, Andrew said, but it also services 2,356 registered trash recyclers in El Paso and Teller counties.
“We’re open at 7 and, especially in the summer when the weather’s nice, we’ll be full by 3,” she said.
There aren’t plans for the county to create a commercial service, Andrew said, adding, “All businesses can order a recycling dumpster from their trash hauler, and we encourage them to do that.”
Andrew said she’s heard southern Colorado has a bad reputation when it comes to recycling.
“I’m aware of that,” she said. “I think there are several reasons for it. Unfortunately, recycling isn’t free. Years ago, individuals were encouraged to recycle cans because they got money back. This kind of created a bad scenario because people have an impression that recycling has intrinsic value. And it does, to some point.
“However, to actually make money at it is difficult. Very few companies go into business to recycle.
“People have this impression that [recycling companies are] taking something with value and making lots of money, so the service should be free to me or they should pay me for it. If that were the case, everybody would be doing it.”
Care and Share began exploring the social enterprise model about five years ago, according to Poore.
“We wanted to be able to do some of our own sustaining and take care of ourselves,” she said. “Funding for nonprofits is always changing. So if you can find a sustainable, reliable revenue stream, then that’s helpful. It won’t cover everything, but it’s helpful and it can bring to light awareness of your mission through a completely different audience.”
Care and Share has been focused on zero-waste work for about the last eight years, Poore said.
“We throw away a third of our food supply in this country every year,” she said. “We, as an organization, didn’t want to contribute to that waste. We distributed almost 24 million pounds of food last year and everything comes on a pallet in a cardboard box wrapped in plastic.
“We didn’t see it was appropriate to throw that stuff away.”
Care and Share had been selling those materials itself — the soft plastics, the cardboard and the pallet lumber.
“We were creating a small revenue stream within Care and Share to, one, divert the waste from a landfill and, two, provide some funding back to the food bank.”
Before the zero waste effort began internally, Poore said Care and Share emptied an 8-yard Dumpster six days a week.
“We went to focusing on zero waste and reduced that to sending out an 8-yard Dumpster once a week,” she said. “We were really good at it and knew we were good at it. We also knew there were businesses like ours with similar amounts of material going to waste. So we worked with the Colorado Nonprofit Social Enterprise Exchange.”
Through those consultations, Care and Share launched GOALZERO as a for-profit in September 2016. The company had several commercial clients and would pick up recycling on-site for a fee.
In April 2017, in an effort to pivot services, Care and Share dissolved its for-profit arm and began a free recycling drop-off location at Waynoka Road. GOALZERO kept only two of its commercial clients (one of which is Colorado Publishing House, which owns the Business Journal), because of the large amounts of recyclable materials they generated.
But most commodities in which Care and Share deals have seen a steep decline in value, Poore said.
“From the time we started until March or April, those commodities have declined in value by about 60 percent,” she said. “We had to make some really quick decisions. If there were a forecast that the commodities market would change in the near future, we could probably have ridden this out. But it doesn’t appear that will happen. Actually, it’s projected to get worse over the next four to six months.”
Poore said, at the end of the fiscal year this summer, the drop-off program was projected to net about $60,000.
“It’s not like it’s six figures,” she said. “And that figure drops off quickly when you have people to pay and insurance and vehicles. … We want to be sure we’re spending our donors’ investments as wisely as possible, so we’re looking at every way to save money as well as make money.”
Poore said the organization will go back to selling materials internally to generate some income.
“I can get $1.30 for a good pallet,” she said. “I can procure enough food with $1.30 to make eight meals. Because of our scale and ability to do mass amounts of work, it doesn’t take much for us to generate a large amount of food.”
She also said Care and Share will immediately begin catering events held at its facilities.
“We’ve been giving away meeting space at Care and Share, which we love to do. And we’ve been letting people bring in their own food. But we have a kitchen.
“What the heck are we thinking?
“We’re still going to give our building away for free. So come have a meeting there — and by the way — here’s our catering menu.”