Sweet smell of success: creative recycling firm draws in volunteers - and a profit

The view from Pete Grogan's office is of mountains - the snowy Rockies and the ruffled edges of trash piles. The moldy odor of garbage wafting up from thundering baling platforms below is the sweet smell of success for Mr. Grogan, executive director and a founder of Eco-Cycle of Colorado.

Solid-waste recycling is earning a shining reputation here in this progressive city after a long battle to buck the American fascination with ''new.''

Trash - the great equalizer, the one commodity every race and social stratum has - is recycled here in an operation that progressive solid-waste experts say has proved recycling can work on a large scale. Eco-Cycle is the nation's first recycling project to get a viable volunteer turnout and a profit.

Instead of wasting Boulder's trash, says Mr. Grogan, Eco-Cycle turned 12,000 tons of it last year into $720,000 worth of sales. Sending recycled glass and paper to manufacturers as far away as Japan and Taiwan, Eco-Cycle saw its first profit - $9,000 - during 1983. It expects more profit from the expected $1 million of sales this year as the program is extended to the nearby community of Longmont.

But what observers agree is the key to the program's success is the voluntary participation that Mr. Grogan has been able to muster.

''Recycling is not the innovation, participation is,'' he explains. All the major retailers in the city and 40 percent of the residential community offer their trash to the program. Participation is rallied by 500 volunteer block leaders who organize neighborhood trash collection efforts. In neighborhoods with block leaders, says Mr. Grogan, participation is as high as 75 percent.

''We're trying to sell a behavior change and funding won't buy participation . . . 500 volunteers give us something you can't buy,'' Grogan explains. His block-leader program has been copied by recycling programs in Minneapolis; Austin, Texas; Stephens Point, Wis.; and Grand Rapids, Mich. He says there is a high level of enthusiasm where responsibility for the program is placed within a neighborhood.

It took eight years for Eco-Cycle to become the hive of activity it is today - 42 full-time employees working seven days a week, with machines turning out 1, 500-pound bales of cardboard and paper at a rate that would fill an acre of landfill 30 feet deep in a year.

On weekends community groups - scouting, church, and school groups looking for fund-raising activities - fan out, collect trash, and pile it into Eco-Cycle's hollowed-out school buses. The groups are given a $500 Eco-Cycle check for their work at day's end. Further, convicted drunk drivers do 24 hours of community service with Eco-Cycle.

''This was perceived at first as a fad, kind of a hippie idealistic thing that couldn't work in the real world,'' recalls Josie Heath, a Boulder County commissioner who lent the political steam that has kept Eco-Cycle on track.

Ms. Heath helped pass a landfill surtax based on the ''polluters pay'' principle of 20 cents per cubic yard dumped. The tax raises $100,000 annually for Eco-Cycle. She also encouraged a program in which waste haulers give recycling participants a discount on nonrecyclable trash picked up.

But today, she says, ''this is one of those clean, apple pie things all neighbors agree on. Nothing cuts across so many lines as Eco-Cycle - geographic, ethnic, professional. It's been a really unifying thing for the community.''

Originally, she says, the recycling project was given attention only because ''we realized we were almost out of space for landfill. Today we know there's no one real solution. But it's going to take a multiple solution of recycling, waste-to-energy, and reduction on consumption.'' Eco-cycle so far is believed to divert 10 to 15 percent of material from Boulder landfill sites.

The pressure from increased costs for landfill sites and energy to manufacture goods will force recycling into the mainstream where public works officials have been reluctant to invest in the new method, says Clifford Case, a board member of the National Recycling Coalition Inc.

''Eco-Cycle is an effective alternative to wasting materials and it's a positive example of what we ought to be doing,'' Mr. Clifford comments. ''Unfortunately, Boulder is still far too unusual and the fact that Americans don't like old material is a pervasive psychological fact of life (that has to be overcome).'' It took seven years for Eco-Cycle to reach the goal of self-generated income, says Grogan, who adds that ''we were selling a dream, and we were politely shown the door on numerous occasions.''

But the Boulder setting almost had to be the kind of place that would give the Eco-Cycle project the time it needed to prove itself, he says.

''Colorado is full of people that come from all the areas where classic mistakes were made so the population is more inclined to sensible solutions,'' he explains.

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