Packaging manufacturers strive to improve recycling in Colorado

The promise of a new state law to provide equal access to recycling for all Colorado residents while also building an industry that creates goods from recycled materials may not take effect until 2026, but advocates and industry say important preparations are well underway are.

The country’s largest beverage companies, like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Molson Coors, have committed to including high levels of recycled materials in their packaging, and now they need a steady and clean stream of glass, cardboard and aluminum to power new goods to ship, he told Liz Chapman, executive director of nonprofit industry and government Recycle Colorado.

Colorado’s producer responsibility law, passed earlier this year, expands the success of industry and nonprofits in creating powerful recycling economies in other states and countries, she said. The industry will provide nominees for the required Colorado producer council before the July 2023 deadline, Chapman said, and then move on to details of how much they will have to self-tax to provide statewide recycling by 2026.

“Beverage companies have made some really ambitious commitments, so they have a big stake,” Chapman said. “In order to achieve this, we have to collect more recyclable materials than before. They need everyone to start putting materials in the right bin so they can achieve those goals.”

Colorado community recycling advocates and local governments enthusiastically support the industry’s efforts to date to implement the 2022 legislation, even as they release an annual recycling report calling Colorado’s recycling status “miserable.” Colorado’s overall recycling rate is 16% of its waste stream, just half the state average, according to a new estimate by nonprofit groups CoPIRG and Eco-Cycle.

To finally grow those numbers, said CoPIRG executive director Danny Katz, Colorado needs to empower every resident in every city and county to recycle and create an indigenous industry to turn recycled materials back into usable goods. So far, Chapman said, only glass users have a local business that can turn discarded bottles into new merchandise.

The producer responsibility law requires all Coloradans to have access to recycling at the same level that they dispose of waste, Katz said. If you have curbside garbage collection, your local government must guarantee curbside collection of recycling. If you live in a rural area and drop off trash, the sorting center must accept a separate recycling stream, Katz said.

By the end of 2023, the Industry Council will propose levels and options to the Health Department for what packaging fees should be and what levels of recycling services across the country can be funded. State health officials are taking requests for a separate public advisory board, made up of attorneys and local government, to review guidelines for implementing the new law. The industry fees are also designed to help new businesses meet increased demand for the transportation, sorting and manufacturing of recyclables.

Proponents of recycling are encouraged by the interest from the packaging industry, Katz said.

“What we’re hearing is that these companies are realizing they have a vested interest in doing this much sooner than is necessary,” Katz said. Companies recognize that demand for recycling laws is spreading, and “they like Colorado’s model and want to show that it’s successful in giving them a lot of power to quickly build a good steward organization,” he said.

Colorado recycling rates should also be supported by a growing network of local laws mandating more recycling and composting, stakeholders said when discussing their annual review. Denver voters overwhelmingly approved a recycling extension — with more than 70% of the vote — that would make mandatory recycling and composting for homes with eight units or more that are now offered the service at landlord discretion.

Existing waste and recycling companies have warned that unless consumers and governments provide them with a cleaner stream of goods, they will not be able to accommodate major expansions. Small amounts of the wrong materials can ruin entire batches of compost, while sorting out hard-to-recycle plastics can make the job unprofitable, they argue.

Manufacturers’ efforts will create a statewide “minimum” list of recyclables, Katz said, meaning that if glass is recyclable in Denver, it must also be recyclable in Limon or Durango. Some rural communities without large public works budgets don’t even take the most common recycled materials, he said.

“For those of us who want to do the right thing, having that minimum list statewide becomes a lot easier to do the right thing,” Katz said. Producers and partners in government need to fund broader educational efforts.

Inflation and supply chain pressures give producers more incentive to get everything working, Katz noted.

“Well done, it’s bringing out a lot of quality material for them,” he said. “Either we can search for materials in a distant land, or we can mine them in a recycling bin.”