Ski-equipment recycling outfit hopes for a lift

It’s sort of a black-diamond run environmental problem: Skiers and the resorts they visit buy 1 million pairs of skis annually, leaving older equipment to pile up in garages and sheds and eventually end up in the trash.

The high-tech and mixed compositional makeup of snow-sports products makes recycling a difficult affair and, until recently, no one was collecting and reprocessing the materials as commodities.

Now, Waste-Not Recycling, based outside Loveland, is helping to lead a pioneering initiative to recycle and reuse skiing equipment. Its objective is to change how manufacturers do business, triggering a revolution in a multibillion-dollar industry with deep ties to Colorado.

“Nobody in the world is doing this,” Anita Comer, president and CEO of Waste-Not, said of the ski-recycling program.

Working with the national trade group Snowsports Industries America, Waste-Not began testing its new processing line last summer to break down hundreds of tons of used and old equipment into components that can be reused or repurposed. The line should be fully operational at the start of 2012. If things go as planned, the effort now focused in the Rocky Mountains could spread across the country, stimulating growth and creating jobs for Waste-Not and the region.

Heading into manufacturing

Comer began Waste-Not Recycling in 1989, with just a pickup truck and a storage shed near Greeley. In those early days, Waste-Not provided curbside residential pickup of glass, paper and cans for homes around Weld County, following garbage trucks around towns. Over time, the company shifted to serve large businesses, such as hospitals and industrial clients, and to handle electronics and other products that require several steps of processing to prepare them for recycling, reuse or destruction. In 2000, Waste-Not moved to its present facilities in Kelim, between Loveland and Greeley on Highway 34.

For Waste-Not and similar companies, collecting materials is only half of the job. Many products – appliances, electronics, furniture and ski equipment – must be broken down to components that can be recycled or repurposed, and markets have to be developed for the materials. As an example, many recyclers bale and ship corrugated cardboard overseas to be processed in order to divert it from local landfills. But Waste-Not has gone a step further, said Todd Loose, Waste-Not vice president, by turning the cardboard into a marketable product, shredding the material and selling it as animal bedding for farms.

“We’re heading more into manufacturing,” Comer said. “Because Waste-Not’s been around for a long time, we’ve ridden some of the highs and lows of the markets. We now fully understand why we need to have more end-use manufacturing in this region – closing the loop – because, if we don’t, we’re subject to the whims of everyone else around the world.”

Loose joined Waste-Not as a business partner in 2010, and Comer credits his presence and work with bringing new energy into the enterprise. The heightened desire to grow the company came just as Snowsports Industries America came calling.

A strategic partnership

Beginning in 2007, SIA, representing winter sports gear manufacturers and retailers, voluntarily launched a corporate-responsibility recycling program. The project was aimed at educating consumers to bring old equipment to retail stores, and its pilot phase focused on the Rocky Mountain region.

In three seasons working with just a handful of retail outlets, the SIA’s Greg Schneider said the program has compiled a whopping 300 tons of skis, boots and other gear. But the group had struggled to figure out how to actually process the trashed equipment, because winter sports products use composite plastics, wood fiber, aluminum and other metals that must be separated into usable materials. In the meantime, the backlog has sat in a Goodwill warehouse in Denver.

Schneider began working with a Canadian recycling company, but it went out of business during the economic downturn. As he made calls across the continent, he connected with the Colorado governor’s office, which led him to approach Waste-Not in 2010.

“I was looking for someone that was in a vertical position that they could collect, recycle and process the materials, and then look to (manufacturing) end products,” Schneider said. Waste-Not and its business experience fit the profile perfectly.

The company and trade group formed a strategic partnership and, in 2011, won a state Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity grant, which is funded through fees collected at landfills. The grant provided $420,000 to acquire machinery and to scale up the recycling line at Waste-Not. The partners contributed additional matching and in-kind support, and university labs are also sharing their expertise. Through SIA, consumers contribute to the program by paying a $1 fee on the purchase of new skis or a 79-cent fee on rentals at resort areas.

Like the ‘holy grail’
The processing line at Waste-Not moves through a six-step process that shreds, separates and reduces skis, bindings, boots and helmets into materials ready for repurposing. The processed materials can be used in landscaping or composite building materials, but both Waste-Not and SIA are, again, hopeful that equipment manufacturers will reuse the materials to make new products.

“We’re always looking for ways that we can repurpose the old equipment,” Schneider said. “It’s like the holy grail.”

At the same time, Loose and Comer are exploring other opportunities. They expect the new processing line to handle other composite plastic products, and Waste-Not is already developing new deals with companies to break down and repurpose similar materials – and to find or create new goods and markets.

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