Colorado’s anemic recycling rate is beginning to resemble the Denver Broncos’ recent seasons — a terrible record year after year, repeated promises to do better, and then more losses and more mediocrity.
Last year, the state diverted 16% of its municipal solid waste from landfill, which is half the national average of 32%, according to the 2022 State of Recycling & Composting in Colorado report. The sixth annual report released by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and Eco-Cycle was released on Tuesday.
“Colorado continues to rank among the top 20 worst states for recycling and composting, and sends more to landfills than comparable western states,” the report said.
It found that Colorado residents, on average, recycle and compost just a pound per person per day, compared to three times that in Oregon and Washington.
But just as a struggling football team must be rebuilt from the inside to be strong again, recycling advocates say the same is true of managing the state’s solid waste stream. And this year, they say, Colorado is laying the groundwork for what should lead to far better results for years to come.
“The 16% diversion rate statewide is sobering, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Suzanne Jones, executive director of Boulder-based Eco-Cycle.
Two bills passed by lawmakers this year should make a big difference going forward, she said. A “producer responsibility” bill signed into law by the governor in June will require companies that make packaging to pay into a fund — fees would largely amount to a penny or less per product — for nationwide curbside recycling also to support the creation of a more robust supply of recycled materials from which new products can be made.
According to Jones, the biggest obstacle to increasing Colorado’s recycling rate is that only 30% of the state’s residents have access to programs like curbside recycling. Six of Colorado’s 10 largest cities, the report finds, do not offer universal curbside recycling services, depriving 1.4 million residents of an easy way to separate their cans, bottles and cartons from their trash.
The other measure passed by state legislatures this spring was the Waste Redirection and Circular Economy Development Center Act, which aims to expand markets to a greater variety of materials while incentivizing manufacturers to incorporate recycled materials into theirs to integrate products.
“It’s the transformative one-two punch that will catapult Colorado from a laggard to a leader,” Jones said of the bills.
It comes at a time when Colorado continues to report miserable recycling rates year after year. Last year, Colorado sent nearly 6 million tons of material to landfill — about 95% of which could have been recycled or composted, the report says.
The new Producer Responsibility Act will create a list of materials that can be recycled and then marketed as new products, reducing the level of cross-contamination that occurs at reprocessing facilities.
“Sometimes it feels like it takes an advanced degree to figure out what goes into a recycling bin,” said Danny Katz, director of CoPIRG. “And that’s just silly.”
While the state as a whole didn’t have big numbers in 2021, certain communities in Colorado did very well. Boulder topped the list for recycling and composting on both the residential and commercial sides with 44%. Next was Durango with 37%, followed by Vail with 35%.
On the purely residential side, Loveland was the top performer in Colorado with 58%, according to the recycling report. Tyler Bandemer, the city’s solid waste superintendent, said Loveland’s high rate is mainly driven by its curbside yard waste pickup program.
Nearly half of the city’s 26,000 homes subscribe to the compost bin service for $9.25 per month. The city has also long used a pay-as-you-throw approach, charging customers more for the trash they throw. Recycling is free.
“Anyone offering a full-service organic collection is going to increase your diversion rate,” Bandemer said. “The garden waste is the engine for the success of our program.”
It’s a page Denver ripped out of Loveland’s playbook this year with its Expanded Waste Services regulation, which will provide curbside compost carts to residents at no additional cost starting in January. It will also increase the city’s recycling collection from bi-weekly to weekly and implement a pay-as-you-throw approach to garbage disposal.
And just last week, Denver voters approved the initiated ordinance 306, mandating recycling and composting in apartment complexes and on construction sites across the city. Jessica Lally, an officer at the city’s Department of Transport and Infrastructure, said during an online news conference Tuesday about the report’s release that the latest initiatives “fill a sort of gap and complement what the city has to offer.”
She hopes the new measures will significantly boost Denver’s 26% diversion rate.
Regarding the Eastern Plains, Clean Valley Recycling manager Deanna Hostetler said the barrier to promoting recycling in the sparsely populated southeast corner of Colorado is rooted in cost.
“The biggest problem is that recycling isn’t free and landfill fees are too low,” she said, referring to the fees landfill operators charge disposal companies to landfill their waste.
Eco-Cycle’s Jones said that while the future for recycling in Colorado looks hopeful, it won’t change overnight. But the bones for a better future are being built, she said.
“These things take time — I wish they were instant,” she said. “But we are laying the foundation for a robust recycling and composting system that will make Colorado famous.”