Colorado’s anemic recycling rate is beginning to look a lot like the Denver Broncos’ last few 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 away from the landfill, coming in at half the national average of 32%, according to the 2022 State of Recycling & Composting in Colorado report. The sixth-annual report, published by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and Eco-Cycle, was released Tuesday.
“Colorado continues to rank among the worst 20 states at 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 much in Oregon and Washington.
But just as a flailing football team needs a rebuild from the inside out to be strong again, recycling advocates say the same goes for the management of the state’s solid waste stream. And this year, they say, Colorado is laying the groundwork for what should yield a far better outcome in the years ahead.
“The 16% statewide diversion rate is sobering but doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Suzanne Jones, executive director of Boulder-based Eco-Cycle.
Two bills passed by the legislature this year should make a big difference going forward, she said. A “producer responsibility” law, signed into law by the governor in June, will require companies that produce packaging to pay into a fund — the fees would for the most part amount to a penny or less per product — to support statewide curbside recycling while also creating a more robust supply of recycled materials from which to make new products.
Jones said the biggest impediment to boosting Colorado’s recycling rate is that only 30% of the state’s residents have access to programs like curbside recycling. Six of the 10 largest cities in Colorado, the report notes, do not provide any universal curbside recycling services, depriving 1.4 million residents of an easy way to separate out their cans, bottles and boxes from their garbage.
The other measure passed by state lawmakers this spring was the Waste Diversion and Circular Economy Development Center bill, which aims to expand markets for a wider variety of materials while providing incentives for manufacturers to incorporate recycled materials into their products.
“It’s the one-two transformative punch that will catapult Colorado from being a laggard to a leader,” Jones said of the bills.
It comes at a time when Colorado continues to report abysmal recycling rates year after year. Last year, Colorado sent to the landfill almost 6 million tons of material — roughly 95% of which could have been recycled or composted, the report states.
The new producer responsibility law will produce a list of materials that can be recycled and then marketed as new products, reducing the amount of cross-contamination that occurs at reprocessing facilities.
“Sometimes it feels like it takes an advanced degree to figure out what’s going into a recycling bin,” said Danny Katz, director of CoPIRG. “And that’s just silly.”
While the state as a whole didn’t put up great numbers in 2021, certain Colorado municipalities did very well. Boulder topped the list for recycling and composting on both the residential and commercial sides, at 44%. Durango was next at 37%, followed by Vail at 35%.
On the residential-only side, Loveland was top dog in Colorado at 58%, according to the recycling report. Tyler Bandemer, the city’s superintendent for solid waste, said Loveland’s high rate is driven largely by its curbside yard waste pickup program.
Nearly half of the city’s 26,000 households subscribe to the compost bin service for $9.25 a month. The city has also long used a pay-as-you-throw approach that charges customers more for the more garbage they toss. Recycling is free.
“Anybody that puts in full-service collection with organics, your diversion rate will go up,” Bandemer said. “The yard waste is what drives the success of our program.”
It’s a page Denver ripped from Loveland’s playbook this year with its “Expanded Waste Services” ordinance, which will provide curbside composting carts to residents at no extra cost starting in January. It also will increase the city’s recycling collection to weekly from bi-weekly and implement a pay-as-you-throw approach to trash disposal.
And just last week, Denver voters approved Initiated Ordinance 306, which will require recycling and composting at apartment complexes and at construction sites citywide. Jessica Lally, who is with the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said during an online press conference Tuesday about the report’s release that the recent initiatives are “kind of filling in the gap and complementing what the city offers.”
She hopes the new measures will significantly boost Denver’s 26% diversion rate.
On the Eastern Plains, Clean Valley Recycling’s manager Deanna Hostetler said the hindrance to boosting recycling in the sparsely populated southeast corner of Colorado is rooted in costs.
“The biggest problem is recycling is not free and the landfill tipping fees are too cheap,” she said, referring to the fees landfill operators charge disposal companies to dump their garbage.
Jones, with Eco-Cycle, said that while the future looks hopeful for recycling in Colorado, it won’t transform overnight. But the bones for a better future are being put in place, she said.
“These things take time — I wish they were immediate,” she said. “But we’re laying the ground for a robust recycling and composting system that will put Colorado on the map.”