Colorado boasts another trash recycling rate, but advocates say better days may be ahead

Colorado’s recycling rate is stuck in the dumps, but proponents say 2022 could be the year it starts collecting its trash.

An annual report by environmental group Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group found that the state kept 16 percent of its waste out of landfills in 2021 — an unchanged rate from last year’s report. That number is also half the state average and falls far short of the state’s goal of diverting 28 percent of its trash to recycling or composting facilities.

The state’s recycling rate has been relatively stable for years, hovering between 15 and 18 percent since the nonprofits released their first report in 2017.

“We have this green reputation as a state, but our recycling rate is pretty trashy and has been for a long time,” says CoPIRG director Danny Katz.

A new producer responsibility program could be a game changer – years later.

But Katz believes new state and local guidelines will now turn the tide.

The most significant is Colorado’s new producer responsibility program, Katz said. Earlier this year, Gov. Polis passed a law requiring companies that make paper, packaging and food paraphernalia to fund a nationwide recycling scheme.

The program aims to make free recycling available to all residents. According to the report’s authors, only 30 percent of Colorado homes currently have guaranteed access to curbside recycling.

Studies have found that producer responsibility policies have helped increase recycling rates in Europe and Canada. In the US, Colorado, Maine, Oregon and California are enacting similar programs, the report said.

However, it will be years before communities see any funding from the new program. According to the law, industry and political leaders have until June 2023 to form a nonprofit organization to collect fees and fund recycling programs. A current timeline for implementation suggests it won’t be operational until 2026.

The report finds that many communities are not waiting for the government program to improve their local recycling rates. It highlights Loveland, Boulder, Fort Collins, Aspen and Durango as communities that send the lowest percentage of their trash to a landfill.

Other cities have ambitious plans to expand recycling and composting services.

Denver is expected to complete its curbside litter program next year, charging households based on the size of their trash can while offering free compost and recycling pickup.

Voters in Colorado’s capital also recently approved a ballot measure that requires homes, restaurants and office buildings to provide recycling and composting services.

Arvada launched a similar program last year. The landfill diversion rate reached 24 percent last January, well above the national average.

Contamination is a challenge for communities pushing to expand their compost systems.

In September, A1 Organics, the state’s largest organic waste processor, announced a policy to reject truckloads of unacceptable amounts of glass, plastic or other non-organic waste. That led to Boulder stopping requiring restaurants to provide compost bins to all customers.

To reduce contamination, the report calls for new labels for compostable products and standards for the quality of the finished compost.

Any efforts to improve recycling and composting rates could be critical to meeting Colorado’s climate goals. According to the report, the state’s low recycling rate has already prevented climate-warming emissions equivalent to removing more than 400,000 cars from the roads a year.