Fewer than 400 people actually live in Alta, but hundreds of thousands of skiers and summer tourists pass through the little mountain town each year. In their wake they leave tons of glass, metal, cardboard, magazines and newspapers.
As a seasonal worker at the Alta Lodge, Reed Merrill counts among his chores hauling huge bags of that trash up a steep ramp to the road for pickup.After contemplating the trash as he dragged it, he figured that much of it was recyclable. He decided he'd put his organizing skills - gained as a college student in Colorado and honed as a Peace Corps volunteer in west Africa - to work.
Now, two years later, the town of Alta is recycling as much as 7,500 pounds of "garbage" per week through a pair of big trailers parked strategically on the side of the road through town.
The program started very small when Merrill persuaded Alta Lodge owner and town Mayor Bill Levitt to allow him and other handymen to sort and separate the lodge refuse and drive it down the canyon to a recycling center.
Next, Merrill organized a band of about 40 people to go to a Town Council meeting to speak to a U.S. Forest Service request that the town and ski resort ban the use of polystyrene containers.
But by then, the town was ready to go further, says Town Councilman Tim Evenden, co-owner of Alta's Albion Grill.
"As the owner of a restaurant on Forest Service land, I said, `If this (request) is for environmental reasons, there's a lot more we could do besides ban polystyrene,' " Evenden said.
The town, working with the local businesses and residents and Wasatch-Cache National Forest officials, set up the recycling program about a year ago. They got a lot of good advice and assistance from Snowbird, the resort down the road, where in a typical day a ton of trash is collected and separated for recycling.
Alta also got a lot of help from its visitors, who pitched in by separating their own trash into marked bins at all of the town's restaurants.
"A lot of people tell us they are happy to see the bins," Evenden said. And if they ignore the signs asking them to please put recyclables in their proper receptacles? "Oh, we bark at 'em every once in a while" he said.
"Everyone gets involved at every step of the process," said Heidi Mosburg, Alta's recycling coordinator. All of the town businesses separate their trash, and the ski corporation keeps the area around the recycling center cleared of snow, she said.
Merrill, now living (and organizing) in San Francisco, said he hopes Alta will make the recycling program pay its way. But Mosburg said no one expects to make any money on the venture and that the town, in fact, subsidizes the program through a portion of her salary.
"Our disadvantage is that we are located some distance out of Salt Lake," she said, adding that Smurfit Recycling makes a special trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon just to service Snowbird and Alta.
Sorting it out
Alta's walk-in recycling center is open 24 hours a day. During the ski season, the town recycled:
2,500 pounds of glass.
4,000 pounds of cardboard.
360 pounds of aluminum.
500 pounds of newspaper.
200 pounds of magazines and computer paper.