Like many cities, Fort Collins, Colo., set aggressive goals to curb air, water, and land pollution. Its approach, however, sets it apart. A soil recycling program launched by one public works department is spreading to others, moving the city slowly but surely toward landfilling 80% less waste by 2020.

The idea came from the Utilities Department’s Water Field Operations, which manages drinking water, wastewater conveyance, and stormwater. Digging up the ground for repairs and maintenance generates 18,000 cubic yards of debris every year, most of which is too wet or mixed to be immediately reused for backfill. Instead of buying new material to finish repairs, crews thought, why not recycle what was already there?

Separating concrete, wood, asphalt, tile pipe, twisted metal, and other junk from the dirt required the department to buy a wheel loader and rock screen. Two-thirds of the $254,000 investment was funded by a grant from the city’s Waste Innovation Program, which supports pilot diversion programs. Launched in June 2013, the project is expected to pay for itself in less than three years.

About one-quarter of the reclaimed soil is reused on infrastructure projects. Another one-quarter is used for daily landfill cover. Recovered metal goes to a scrap contractor, wood to a commercial composter.

The streets department, which crushes recovered asphalt, concrete, and tiles for road-base, recently bought equipment that employees think will increase the diversion rate to 75%.

“One of my favorite parts of this project has been an active new relationship between our streets and utilities departments,” says Senior Environmental Planner Susie Gordon. “The crews are talking amongst themselves about taking recovery to an even higher level by running the final pile of debris through their new Powerscreen.”