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EPA studies the grimy side of tourism

 Trash sorters for the EPA working at the Franz Klammer Trash Shed in Telluride.
Gavin McGough
Trash sorters for the EPA working at the Franz Klammer Trash Shed in Telluride.

Some four or five years ago, Virginia Till, a behavioral scientist working with the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver, started to think about isolated mountain resort towns, short-term rental properties, and trash.

She was curious, she says,

“How an influx of people affects waste. It really hasn’t been measured. I’d been thinking about on over the years and then an opportunity came up with my colleague in the Office of Research and Development," said Till.

"And so we had some money and we started Phase 1, which was baseline, to see how well do people recycle when they're on vacation, basically.”

When it came to choose a location for their ski vacation trash study, Till and the EPA landed at the Franz Klammer Lodge in Mountain Village.

That was back in 2019.

Condo units at the lodge produce a ton or so of trash each day, and for the week-long experiment, sorters combed through every bit of it.

The conclusion?

Till says nearly three quarters of the waste could have been directed towards recycling or compost.

“75% of materials in Phase 1 had the potential for diversion from the landfill, if compost was an option,” said Till.

“So, we didn't just look at recyclables; we also looked at compost.”

Last week, the study returned to the Franz Klammer Lodge, to follow up three years later, and see if changes made by the lodge after the first phase were showing any improvement in levels of recycling.

EcoAction Partners is working with the EPA to carry out the study.

 A snapshot of  trash sorting in progress at the Klammer Lodge in Mountain Village near Telluride.
Gavin McGough
A snapshot of trash sorting in progress at the Klammer Lodge in Mountain Village near Telluride.

Speaking from the trash shed at the Franz Klammer Lodge, EcoAction’s Energy Coordinator Sean Hart explains the question behind Phase 2.

“The Franz Klammer has done more education with their staff, and also has put in each room, [a sign reading] ‘Hey, please recycle,’ and that sort of thing.” said Hart.

“And so, we’re hoping to be able to measure more recyclables in the recycling waste stream, and the trash will be more densely trash." 

And what does trash sorting actually entail?

Pretty simple: plastic gloves, black aprons, a large table at the center of the shed, and a half dozen sorters carefully picking through bags and bags and bags of garbage.

Furnished with EPA funding, the position pays 30 dollars an hour.

Telluride resident, and trash sorter for the week, Carl Cody explained the wide range of things they’ve found.

“Everything from the mundane – you know a lot of tissues, toiletries, food waste – all the way up to some pretty wild finds: ski gear, shopping tags, clothing tags, cash in trash, things that are reusable, that you could absolutely found a home for or continue to find a use for, and yet here we are picking through it. I mean you name it, at this point we’ve found it” said Cody.

Sorter Ed Watkinson added what’s been most astonishing to him is simply the volume.

“It’s not as dirty and nasty as I thought it was going to be, but it’s not pleasant at all. And we throw a lot of stuff away, and this is just one hotel. One week’s worth of trash at one hotel and this is just one resort town,” said Watkinson.

The shed is out behind the Village Core, and the March day is mellow and drippy.

Sorters dissect the bags of garbage into 22 different categories — covering various recyclables, compostables, textiles, and so one.

Quite a few things just make a person scratch their head: a pile of ski bindings, a pair of goggles, brand new, an unopened jug of Vermont Maple Syrup.

Cody adds sorting trash shows close up how unsustainable our existence can be.

“It's a good reminder of how much crap we get rid of and go through, and also of how much wealth is around here. From a personal standpoint, it's a good reminder for me to do my best to separate this kind of crap out. I don’t know that we have the facilities or the ability around here to manage as much waste as we generate – it's a reality of the human existence – but at the same time, I feel like there gotta be a better way,” said Cody.

Till adds this is the first study specifically looking at short-term rental waste, and how to improve those levels of recycling.

“So this unique research is really going to help with this type of lodging and with resort areas. Studies like this can really provide the community with future programs they’d like to implement,” said Till.

Those programs could range from increasing educational materials and labeling to implementing a municipal wide composting system.

The findings will be published in journals once the data has been crunched.

But, one thing is already clear.

Out behind the Franz Klammer lodge, getting dirty in the name of science, and for 30 bucks an hour, it rings true: one condo’s trash is another man’s treasure.

This storywas shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Gavin McGough