A portable sauna, built by Moab resident Sam Newman, was recently constructed from “upcycled” materials: old cedar shingles for the exterior, bus seats refitted with wooden slats for seating, an aluminum fishing boat for the roof and a discarded propane cylinder for the stove. [Photo by Makeda Barkley / Moab Sun News]

As recycling profits plummet and the Grand County Solid Waste Special Service District grapples with how to handle the demands of recycling, solutions include educational seminars and new ways of sorting recyclable materials. For community members like Sam Newman, there’s a different solution: upcycling.

“Upcycling is really important in a place like this because it’s hard to get material anyway. Almost anything you could want from the hardware store is stuff that they order in,” Sam Newman said. “The less that material has to move around, the better. There seem to be a lot of great resources available — there’s a lot of construction here and so there are a lot of construction-based items.”

Newman, a local builder, recently constructed a portable sauna made of upcycled materials: old cedar shingles for the exterior, bus seats refitted with wooden slats for seating, an aluminum fishing boat for the roof and a discarded propane cylinder for the stove.

Many organizations in Moab, such as WabiSabi, Resiliency Hub and the Youth Garden Project, are also finding ways to reuse or repurpose materials.

Resiliency Hub is one organization that has been working to find constructive ways to reuse materials, such as their partnership with the Moab Charter School to help the sixth-grade students create a trash sculpture.

“Upcycled art is very place-based and Moab has many artists who creatively reuse materials,” Resiliency Hub Vice President Claire Core said. “It says a lot about our community, that people want to clean up our environment and put things to a creative use.”

The recyclable waste that isn’t diverted and upcycled ends up with Deborah Barton, Grand County Solid Waste Special Service District Manager, and her staff, at the recycling center, or at one of the landfills in the county.

Barton has been educating community members on waste disposal practices and urging citizens to refuse and reuse to cut back on materials. She hosted a series of community seminars in April and May at the Grand County Public Library.

“Globally, China is the big ‘elephant in the room’ for recycling handling because they had been taking all the exports of recycling,” Barton said. “Now, they’re at the point where they can be choosy and only take a certain quality-level of recyclable materials, and they’re serious about only taking clean recycling materials … this is what has caused the tumbling of prices.”

With the recent drastic changes to China’s imported recycling standards, countries like the United States are being forced to reconsider how to handle overwhelming recycling demands.

Grand County is included in the areas struggling to keep up with recycling demands as the costs of recycling soars.

“We haven’t made a profit in recycling since 2010,” Barton said.

Barton said there was a net loss of $93,117 for the Grand County Solid Waste Special Service District in 2017. The gross revenue, including funds from the Transient Room Tax (TRT), was $224,506, but Barton said the gross expenses amounted to $317,623.

The total carbon footprint savings with the 2017 recycling is 2,353 metric tonnes of MTCO2e, or roughly the equivalent to emissions from 495 cars.

Because of the export changes being made to recycling, Grand County is exploring alternative options, like shipping the county’s recyclable materials to Colorado for single-stream recycling and metals to Salt Lake City.

“Do we want to keep it clean here locally, and get a larger amount of money to keep the money circulating here, or contract privately take the material to Grand Junction or Salt Lake City and have them sort it there?” Barton said. “Or we do it here, so we don’t throw anything away once we get it clean? And that’s not reasonable, either.”

The influx of solid waste from tourism contributes to the problem of having more recycling than can be handled efficiently in an economical way.

“TRT is a limited amount of funds,” Grand County Council Chair Mary McGann said, “and there are many needs beyond our solid waste. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to fund the solid waste district at the level we are now … TRT is meant to offset some of the impacts of tourism, and we produce a lot more waste for a community our size because of the tourism.”

The TRT funds account for about 40 percent of Grand County Solid Waste Special Service District’s gross revenue.

Local artists, builders, community members and nonprofit organizations are continuing to find their own solutions to mitigate the involvement of waste management agencies by using discarded materials as objects to build structures.

“There are hundreds of people and thousands of hours of labor to get any material made from the mine or forest — on the truck, through the factory, shaped and molded, trucked to a store, bought by people and then worked on and assembled,” local artist Pete Apicella said. “There are so many people in between, and then at some point down the road it’s abandoned and I can use it. It’s a matter of being efficient and there is a sense of ‘found object art or functional reuse,’ but it’s also a redemption story. It’s like reassigning value to something that was discarded.”

Newman, who is also an artist and carpenter, shares a similar sentiment about reuse and limiting the movement of materials.

“Upcycling is also important to me because I feel a lot more creative when you have a couple of boundaries or limitations,” Newman said. “I really like to respond to found material, so that’s how I use upcycling to get inspired and creative. See what you can find at the dump or on the side of the road and see what it could become other than just a pile of trash.”

Another organization that contributes to and promotes reuse in the Moab community is WabiSabi. Liz Donkersloot, sustainability and community outreach coordinator for WabiSabi, commented on the necessity of community participation to keep Moab afloat amidst the influx of solid waste materials.

“I think most people in town are here for the same reasons,” Donkersloot said. “Keeping the area clean, keeping the appeal for tourists, and for our own community are important to keep things local, and reduce our output of waste with the current trash crisis.”

While upcycled art and reuse construction projects are some of the proposed alternatives to the recycling crisis, it’s unlikely that they could counter the level of recycling that Grand County faces without a huge upswing in those practices.

“How can we step back, expand our peripheral vision and see how can we use this locally? What would happen if we could divert and use it locally?” Barton asked. “You create jobs and economy. You reduce transport requirements and might also reduce carbon footprint and increase local economy; it’s called economic multiplying factor.”

Waste manager encourages waste material be diverted and reused

“How can we step back, expand our peripheral vision and see how can we use this locally? What would happen if we could divert and use it locally?”