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Colorado's recycling rate remains low, but this year advocates are hopeful

Posted at 5:32 PM, Nov 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-15 20:20:25-05

DENVER — For years, Colorado’s recycling and composting rates have remained stubbornly low. The sixth annual State of Colorado Recycling and Composting report found that as a whole, the state only diverts about 16% of its waste. That is roughly half of the national average of 32%.

The 16% translates into 1.1 million tons of waste being diverted, which is the equivalent to taking 430,000 cars off of the road for one year. Of that, 10% is for recycling and 6% is from composting. The other 84% ends up in landfills each year.

“The statewide rate has been pretty stagnant over the last six years since we've been doing this report,” said Danny Katz, the executive director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

In the Front Range, the city of Loveland came out on top once again for offering the best residential service while Boulder was ranked the best for its city and county-wide residential and commercial recycling programs. Fort Collins, meanwhile, was ranked the best industrial recycler.

A major reason the state’s rates are so low is the lack of access to recycling. The report found that only 30% of Colorado households have guaranteed access to curbside recycling.

Despite the stubbornly low recycling rate, Katz and other waste reduction advocates insist 2022 was a good year for Colorado. They point to two new laws passed by legislators this session.

House Bill 22-1355 creates a producer responsibility program in the state. It would require companies that sell products in the state to pay into the program for the amount of goods they sell in the state and the waste they contribute. The money would then be used towards a statewide recycling program that would establish a clear, uniform list of what’s recyclable and educate the public on it.

“One of the simplest ways to build trust is to make it easy to access. So, give everybody a recycling bin, and then make it easy to know what goes in there with a simple list that every single person has in the state,” Katz said.

The new law will also help build up the state’s recycling infrastructure.

It’s something Governor Jared Polis said during a press conference Tuesday, as he hopes it will attract more businesses to the state to turn those recyclable materials into useable goods, saying it’s good for Colorado’s environment and its economy.

He would like to see Colorado go from being one of the worst recycling states in the country to a national leader.

Along with that, legislators also passed HB22-1150, which creates a circular economy development center to support businesses that use recycled materials to make new products.

For Katz and recycling advocates, consistency and simplicity are the key to boosting statewide rates. He doesn’t want families standing in the kitchen struggling to read the number on a packaging label to try to determine which bin it belongs in.

“You're likely just going to throw it away,” he said. “We don't want people to be putting recycled materials in the trash because those recycled materials have value. We can actually sell them to businesses.”

Along with the new state laws, individual cities have also taken more steps to grow their recycling programs.

This year, the Denver City Council passed a pay as you throw waste management model. The system would flip the current incentive structure of waste in Denver, by offering recycling and composting bins at no extra cost while increasing charges of trash bins for households with high amounts of garbage.

Denver lags behind other comparable cities and the national average for recycling and composting rates. City data shows 26% of waste in Denver was diverted from landfills in 2020, compared to a national average of 34% The city recently announced a goal of 50% diversion by 2027, and 70% by 2032.

Last week, voters in Denver also overwhelmingly approved Initiative 306 to expand recycling and composting in the city.

The ballot measure, known as the Waste No More Denver initiative, sets up a phased-in recycling and composting program for most buildings.

“It will now have recycling and composting phased-in to all businesses including apartments, condos, restaurants, hotels, sporting events, music events, and for the first time, recycling from construction,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, the initiative’s campaign director.

Tafoya says 82% of the city’s waste comes from this sector so this ordinance will make a big difference in the city’s waste diversion rates.

“What we're hoping is that there's a shift in our overall culture here in Denver that the people who live here are doing a better job sending their waste to the right place, and you’ve got to remember, there are literally millions upon millions upon millions of visitors that come to Denver every single day and they leave their trash for us to deal with,” Tafoya said.

Other cities have also begun working on their own recycling solutions. Vail has expanded its composting over the past year. Places like Avon have passed new universal recycling requirements. Other cities like Glenwood Springs and Breckenridge have passed their own pay as you throw programs and more.

All of this is giving Katz hope that after years of stagnant recycling numbers, Colorado could be poised to finally break the trend.

“We need to keep moving forward. Because this is about our environment. It's about protecting our environment and reducing air pollution,” he said.

The test now will be in the recycling reports coming out for Colorado over the next couple of years to see whether any of this makes a difference.