GovNews: City of Boulder Saves Millions by Recycling Road Materials

The City of Boulder public works department started recycling road materials ripped out during construction projects. The mountain of material is processed on-site and then re-used to rebuild the road. The new process saved Boulder $1.5 million in 2017 alone.

ARTICLE | Aug 14, 2018
City of Boulder, CO

PrAna has always had it out for plastics. The yoga brand in 2010 began shipping more of its clothes wrapped in paper and string, rather than the customary plastic sleeves. But when Boulder passed its Universal Zero Waste Ordinance, requiring businesses to recycle and compost, employees of the Pearl Street store saw opportunity to do more.

In sorting their waste, workers found that plastic packaging was still a huge problem. So they worked with their hauler, Eco-Cycle, to collect plastic wrap — too thin to be included with recyclables, as it would tangle the machines — to be sent to the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials.

Soon, the practice spread to other downtown stores. Then, when competitor yoga brand Lululemon found out, it started recycling plastic wrap, too, bringing other Twenty Ninth Street Mall retailers on board.

"We do everything we can to recycle," said PrAna store manager Kelli Kremer. "That type of recycling isn't available all over; we're lucky we can work directly with Eco-Cycle."

Mandatory business recycling has been in place since mid-2016, but enforcement began a year later. The city is just now getting its first full year of data on how much more trash is being kept out of landfills.

"This year is the first time we have a really complete picture of where we're at, what we're doing," said Alexis Bullen, a spokesperson with the department of climate and sustainability. "And the data is good."

In 2017, 2,485 fewer tons of trash were collected in Boulder, while an additional 1,791 tons and 2,081 tons of materials were composted and recycled, respectively. The city is now keeping more than half its waste (51 percent) from going into the garbage.

Businesses sent 6 percent more trash to recycling or composting than the previous year, an enormous one-year gain, Bullen said. About 43 percent of commercial waste now goes somewhere other than the dump, not far behind the 52 percent diversion rate of single-family homes.

Liz Philbrick fills a glass jar with Lung Tea for Angela Owens, left, Owen Bockenthien and Barbara Quint at Rebecca's Herbal Apothecary & Supply on Thursday in Boulder. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)

"We've seen great success" through a combination of ingenuity and plain old perseverance, Bullen said. 

Like PrAna, Rebecca's Herbal Apothecary (1227 Spruce St.) has long made efforts to reduce its trash output. It reuses biodegradable packing peanuts sent in shipments; the ones that aren't, it sends to UPS to be re-used. Paper is used whenever possible, as is compostable plastic.

But the city's Zero Waste Ordinance urged them on to bigger and better programs. A courier was contracted to bring materials to CHaRM. General manager Amber Graziano spent hours researching vendors who could replace plastic packaging with biodegradable materials, even for the smallest of items.

The extra effort has been worth it, Graziano said. "It fits with our mission of reclaiming our health, personally and collectively."

Creative thinking has happened within the city itself, too. The public works department, with the help of a contractor, started recycling road materials ripped out during construction projects, such as water main replacements. The mountain of material — about 50,000 tons so far — is processed on-site, where it is stored and then re-used to rebuild the road. 

It saves money two times over: the city had to pay once to dump the road waste at the landfill, and then again to buy fresh backfill. The new process saved Boulder $1.5 million in 2017 alone, said Utilities Superintendent Josh Meck.

"It's things like that," said Bullen, "that are not only great but innovative and save the city money. And will help us get to our ambitious 85 percent diversion by 2025."

Boulder is on track to meet or exceed that goal, but there is still work to be done. Recycling and composting at apartment complexes is still incredibly low: only 23 percent of waste is saved. Contamination is still a problem.

To that end, the city is moving into its next phase of education, teaching businesses and residents how to sort recycling and what to compost. (Bullen's quick tip: "If it was alive in your lifetime, it can go in compost.")

Trainings are ongoing at businesses, both one-on-one advisors and 101 group classes. A sorting quiz has been developed to make learning more fun for employees because "sometimes waste is not glamorous," Bullen said.

A big focus is on construction material, which largely goes to the landfill, and restaurants: food waste makes for high-quality, high-value compost. Much of Boulder County's compost goes to A1 Organics in Eaton, about 30,000 cubic yards of it (roughly 30 million pounds per year), said Bob Yost, chief technical officer.

Yost is glad for all the efforts underway in Boulder. But there's one thing more he'd like to see them do with their compost: buy it back.

"It needs to go back to the point of origination to make it a true sustainable use," he said. "We need to close the loop."



Shay Castle:
303-473-1626, or

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