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Officials estimate that the Pitkin County Landfill may be completely full 14 years from now. In an ongoing series, Aspen Public Radio’s team of journalists examines how and why the dump is filling up so rapidly, and how local governments are working to extend the life of it.

PitCo 'Talking Trash' to extend landfill life

Pitkin County developed a dirty reputation earlier this year when it was revealed that the average citizen produces 10 pounds of waste per day. In response, officials have launched a campaign to change people’s trashy behavior.


For months now, animated characters like a paper coffee cup, a discarded shoe and a greasy pizza box have been dancing across television screens and appearing in local print ads, as part of Pitkin County Landfill’s “Talking Trash” campaign. The landfill is reaching capacity, and the majority of items that are dumped each day could have been recycled, reused, refused or composted.

Solid waste manager Cathy Hall said it's too soon to calculate direct impacts of the campaign, but the 15-year lifespan could be significantly extended if people understood more about the final resting place of their discarded items.


For those who don’t frequent landfills, it looks like this: trucks entering the landfill stop on a scale before heading up a dirt path that ends in a scattered heap of refuse. Once they hit the trash, they just throw your junk on top of that, and then drive away.  

Next, a worker drives a tractor over all the garbage, pressing it down into the ground. It’s actually really similar to what you might do at home to making room for more garbage by shoving all the trash down further into the bin.

In most landfills, construction and demolition debris make up about 20 percent of the items. In Pitkin County it’s 64 percent. Pitkin county residents are actually decent recyclers, with a 40 percent diversion rate for recyclables, well ahead of the statewide average of 15 percent. The landfill operates solely off of revenue collected from those using the facility, it is not a tax-payer funded operation. While the landfill has taken over composting operations for the county, that “compostable” dinnerware available in stores can’t be composted locally. It takes 120 days to break down, but the landfill has to turn it’s compost faster than that. Similarly, anything compostable that ends up in the trash pile instead won’t break down. There are 20 year-old newspapers in landfills that can still be read today.

Sara Bixby is the deputy executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. She said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a hierarchy when it comes to disposing waste. First priority is to just produce less of it in the first place. The final resort is a landfill to tuck away our trash. But that’s not always how it works in practice.

“So, having a hierarchy is a start but you really have to get people involved in the effort in order to get the whole system to work,” said Bixby.

That’s just what Hall is hoping to accomplish with the current ad campaign. Her goal is not just educating Pitkin County residents and visitors, but actually changing public behavior, before there is just no more place to put our trash.

“A lot of people (think) it disappears in the morning. I put it on the curb and I don't see it again, but it comes here, and it has to be managed,” said Hall.

Once the  landfill is full, trucks will have to take trash to a landfill in a surrounding county instead, adding traffic on the highways and potentially doubling the price of waste disposal for Pitkin County residents.

The landfill is offering free compost bins while supplies last.

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