Working Partner Update: Eco-Cycle; Boulder, Colo.

ILSR and Eco-Cycle have been working partners since the mid 1970s when both organizations were founded.

During the beginning years of the post World War II resurgence in recycling in the late 1960s – early 1970s, community drop-off centers grew into community based curbside collection enterprises; often started in activists’ back yards and porches, gas stations, empty lots. These companies were the bridge to drop-off centers and soon to be ubiquitous municipal curbside services.

  • Portland Recycling Team – Portland, Oregon
  • EcoloHaul – Los Angeles, California
  • Garbagios – Eugene, Oregon
  • Recycle Unlimited – St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Recycling Unlimited – Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Solano County Recyclers – Solano County, California
  • Santa Rosa Community Recycling Center and Garbage Reincarnation – Santa Rosa, California

Most were absorbed by municipal programs, bought out by hauling companies or went out of business. Eco-Cycle, Boulder, Colo. started in 1976 remains one of the few enterprises that evolved as an independent recycling organization, still running strong along with the Ann Arbor, Mich., Recycling Center and Berkeley, Calif., Recycling Center.

Each enterprise had its own unique features which, when shared with others, established an inventory of innovations in equipment, labor and media outreach. Eco-Cycle started collections using converted school buses. Community groups provided volunteers to work on the pick up routes for source-separated recyclables. Each week a sponsoring organization would provide labor and get a cash bonus as a contribution for the help. The system lasted from 1976-1992 when the city formed a partnership with local haulers to take over the program. However, grassroots engagement remains a core of Eco-Cycle’s work.

Eco-Cycle’s success over the past several decades is due in large part to its evolution as a social enterprise. Eco-Cycle uses for-profit activities to help fund its mission-driven education and advocacy work. On the for-profit side, Eco-Cycle has been the operator of the Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC), a publicly owned facility, since it opened in 2001. The BCRC converted to single-stream recycling in 2008 and most recently upgraded to plastics optical sorting. Under Eco-Cycle’s tenure, the facility has a reputation for providing some of the cleanest, highest grade materials. Eco-Cycle reinvests the revenue it receives from the BCRC operations into Zero Waste community-based infrastructure, education, outreach and advocacy programs.

In 2001 the community-based non-profit created the first CHARM facility in the nation, the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, with support from the city of Boulder. The CHaRM now accepts 24 different types of materials, including electronics, mattresses, toilets, books, foam packaging and even yoga mats. The CHaRM partners with local entrepreneurs, businesses, and nonprofits to develop the markets and infrastructure for these hard-to-recycle materials while creating local jobs and local economic value.

In addition to running these major pieces of infrastructure, Eco-Cycle also runs a fleet of trucks and picks up recycling, compost and hard-to-recycle materials from businesses in Boulder County.

These three above for-profit activities help fund Eco-Cycle’s mission-driven activities, including:

  • Developing eco-leaders in every sector of the community who serve as the educational point of contact among their peers.
  • Educating kids through our Green Star Schools program, one of the most comprehensive recycling, composting and waste reduction programs in the country
  • Organizing grassroots advocacy at the local and state level to change the rules to promote recycling and Zero Waste
  • Helping communities nationwide implement Zero Waste programs and championing Zero Waste as a critical climate solution through our Eco-Cycle Solutions project.

Building on lessons from cities around the country, Eco-Cycle recently developed a Community Zero Waste Roadmap that outlines the key policies, programs and infrastructure needed to recover 90% of a community’s discards in 10 years.

Most recently, leaders from Eco-Cycle have promoted the use of Mechanical and Biological Treatment as a bridge between recycling and zero waste. These systems process mixed waste streams AFTER comprehensive recycling, composting, and reuse have been implemented in a jurisdiction. One recent study indicates that a city that has a 70% recycling rate can grow to 80% and higher by using MBT technology.

Eric Lombardi, the now-former executive director of Eco-Cycle and current president of Zero Waste Strategies, also took a leadership role in the Grass Roots Recycling Network, formed in 1995, with assistance from ILSR, to transform thinking about recycling into thinking about zero waste.

Today, Eco-Cycle employs nearly 70 workers across all its different programs and services. Salaries range from $10-$18 per hour depending upon responsibly. EcoCycle offers a full health insurance for workers with dental and vision options. Workers also have 403b retirement plans.

As one of the nation’s oldest and largest non-profit recyclers, Eco-Cycle continues to leverage its hands-on experience and leadership in Boulder County to advocate for cities to implement Zero Waste strategies as a solution to reducing climate pollution, creating jobs, conserving resources and bolstering local economies.

Learn more at from EcoCycle’s annual report. Also Recycling Today Magazine wrote an excellent article on Eco-Cycle and Eureka Recycling earlier this year: Finally, there are lots of great historical photos at

Eric Lombardi, mentioned earlier, also presented to the community composters at a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.