Eco-Cycle brands itself as one of the oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers and zero-waste organizations in the United States. The company was established in 1976 in Boulder, Colorado, by what it says were “everyday residents who had a passionate belief in conserving natural resources.” The work of those volunteers made the city of Boulder one of the first 20 communities in the U.S. to offer curbside recycling.
“We started out with residential source-separated recycling hauling,” says Justin Stockdale, director of CHaRM (center for hard-to-recycle materials) and zero-waste hauling at Eco-Cycle. “Back then it was truly source-separated newspapers in one bin, brown glass bottles in another bin, aluminum cans, steel cans—the full gamut.”
“We did all that work in the back of a school bus,” he adds. “We would convert school buses to become recycling collection trucks. That’s how we got started.”
Stockdale says the program evolved over the next several years as local haulers took on curbside recycling and Eco-Cycle stepped away from the residential side of the business, focusing on commercial hauling beginning in the mid-1980s when local private haulers started to step into the recycling space.
There were multiple factors that went into that decision, but Stockdale says the primary motivation was the potential for greater impact on the commercial side versus residential. “If your goal is to divert as much material as possible, then commercial is the sector to do it.”
Today, Eco-Cycle operates 10 licensed commercial vehicles in its fleet, which Stockdale says typically runs five or six routes per day, and, true to its history of innovation, the company announced in February it will add a Mack LR Electric to its fleet—the nation’s first commercial battery electric vehicle (BEV) for compostable waste collection, which the company hopes to have on the road by August of this year.
“There are lots of moving pieces, [but] the immediate goal is [to] prove the possibility, prove that this is viable—that it can be done—and establish the best practices of how to get it done and push that further out into the community,” Stockdale says. “It’s not just about us converting our fleet. As a mission-driven nonprofit, success for us will be proving that it can happen … We’re in that unique position.”
Though Eco-Cycle was established 46 years ago, its commercial collection business is relatively new. In February 2004, the company launched a six-month pilot program to collect commercially generated compostable waste from nine businesses in Boulder, beginning with an $8,470 grant from Boulder County to help offset some overhead costs. The idea was to teach all employees in participating businesses the importance and value of proper source separation of compostables to ensure maximum diversion and high-quality compost.
Stockdale says the company then partnered with A1 Organics, based in Eaton, Colorado, to do the actual composting, and the program was officially established in 2005.
“That is the obvious underpin of any of these endeavors—if you don’t have a landfill, you don’t run a garbage truck. Same goes for composting,” Stockdale says. “A1 Organics stood up … That’s where we started with commercial compost hauling. [It] was hauling from commercial businesses to that private-sector compost facility, and we’ve been there ever since.”
He adds, “We were the first ones in the region to do it, [and] it’s now embraced almost universally. Pretty much all of our competitors—at least anybody with significant scale—runs commercial compost routes.”
It wasn’t the first project Eco-Cycle pioneered in the region, either. Eco-Cycle also opened a CHaRM in 2001, partly funded by city of Boulder trash tax dollars. Stockdale says it was the first facility of its kind in the U.S., collecting materials such as electronics, plastic bags, textiles and mattresses, among other items.
Stockdale says, “At the time it was pretty well one-of-a-kind in the nation, and [there was an] understanding that weird, esoteric materials also have potential for recycling, just not through a conventional curbside program.”
Eco-Cycle currently hauls much of its material from institutions running their own in-house food service programs, including Boulder Valley Schools, University of Colorado Boulder and Google, as well as numerous microbreweries in the area. Stockdale says those types of institutions make up approximately 50 percent of Eco-Cycle’s hauling portfolio, while the other 50 percent is a “random mix.” A privately operated transfer station in Boulder handles the organic waste locally, then reloads and hauls the material 40 to 50 miles to the commercial composter.
“One of our great assets or abilities is, we run MRFs (material recovery facilities), we run trucks, we run collection systems,” Stockdale says. “So, we’re not just advocates trying to convince the private sector to do this. We’re a quasi-private sector [business] actually doing it, and it gives people a whole lot more confidence … If little ole Eco-Cycle can do it, then Lord knows that much larger enterprises can pull it off.”
Fleet of the future
In alignment with its zero-waste mission, Eco-Cycle in February ordered a Mack LR Electric BEV, the first to be added to its fleet. According to Eco-Cycle, it is the first commercial-scale electric-powered collection truck for compostables, and the purchase marks the start of Eco-Cycle’s transition to an all-electric fleet.
The company plans for the Mack LR Electric to travel approximately 15,000 miles each year collecting compostables, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2,500 tons over the vehicle’s lifetime. Four nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide lithium-ion batteries provide vehicle propulsion and power the truck’s onboard accessories. At the time of the announcement, Eco-Cycle Executive Director Suzanne Jones said, “This effort is in keeping with Eco-Cycle’s long history of pioneering ‘firsts’ for the recycling, composting and waste industry.”
Stockdale says the company is working on several strategies to secure funding for more BEVs and notes that, while the implementation can be a lengthy process, the benefits cannot be ignored.
“There’s obviously … the environmental advantage of zero-emission hauling, and when we say zero emissions, we’re not talking about … [plugging] the truck into a coal-fired power plant and the emissions are just happening elsewhere,” he says. “Our long-term goals are self-generated solar or other alternative fuels here on-site in our yard, so we truly are a zero-emissions operation.”
But Stockdale says that’s a long-term goal because being the first to implement a BEV into the fleet has proven to be complicated. It’s not just a first for Eco-Cycle, but for the utility company, the local community, and it’s still a relatively new concept for Mack, which sent its LR Electric Model to Phoenix-based Republic Services for real-world testing in October 2020. He says some major assumptions had to be made when it comes to the benefits of a BEV versus a traditional commercial diesel truck, such as the lifecycle cost.
“As a nonprofit, things like equipment replacement funds are not top of mind,” Stockdale says. “We run a lot of depth in our fleet because we’re running older vehicles. That depth allows us to be sure that we can cover those services in the event of a breakdown, but the EV (electric vehicle) is really a step through that door to go past that traditional model of duplicative fleets to cover downtime.”
He adds, “One of the many advantages of the electric vehicle is there’s much less downtime; there are far fewer moving parts, far fewer maintenance issues—just frankly, they’re simpler machines. We see that as a great advantage to modernize the fleet as it gives us that resiliency within the design of the truck, not just that it’s a new truck.”
While in the process of implementing its new commercial BEV, Stockdale says Eco-Cycle also is launching a pilot program using dumpster sensors to move to a more on-demand service model rather than a scheduled service model.
It’s all part of the company’s mission to streamline operations, creating new recycling opportunities with the establishment of its CHaRM and advocating for more zero-waste solutions. “That’s what separates Eco-Cycle over the years is that we didn’t just say it couldn’t be done, we went out and did it,” he says. “‘Curbside recycling? [We were told] ‘Oh, you can’t do that … It’s a waste of time, and you can’t do it affordably.’ Here we are 45 years later—[we] proved it. [We] solved it.”