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Coloradans produced a record 9.3 million tons of trash last year. Only 12 percent of it was recycled.

Colorado's recycling rate has flat lined at about a third of the national average

Crews at Alpine's Altogether Recycling go through their daily process of sorting through mountains of recyclable materials on July 20, 2018 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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A new report released Wednesday from Colorado environmental organizations has bad news for Mother Earth: The state’s recycling rate hasn’t improved and the amount of trash produced by Coloradans hit a record of 9.3 million tons in 2017.

“We set the wrong record,” said Danny Katz, State Director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and co-author of “The State of Recycling in Colorado 2018,” which put the state’s recycling rate at 12 percent.

But there was a sign of hope for consumers who dutifully clean their plastic containers before tossing them in recycling bin.

Many of the local communities that make this a priority saw an increase in recycling rates, including Grand Junction, Longmont and Lone Tree.

Denver improved its rate by 2 percentage points to 22 percent. The national average, by comparison, is 35 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Read the report: The State of Recycling in Colorado 2018

“The report continues to be bad news but that was not a surprise. Recycling rates do not change overnight unless you implement new programs and roll out convenient new services,” said Kate Bailey, the report’s coauthor and director of Boulder nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle. “There are a lot of great small things happening in communities, but we’re lacking a concerted statewide effort. That’s why we’re focused on pushing the (new) governor. We have to make this a priority with the new leadership.”

Gov.-elect Jared Polis could not be reached for comment.

Colorado cities with highest rates of recycling
Loveland, 61 percent
Boulder, 52 percent
Louisville, 44 percent
Aspen, 40 percent
Longmont, 38 percent
Lafayette, 38 percent
Golden, 34 percent
Fort Collins, 29 percent

Source: The State of Recycling in Colorado 2018 by CoPIRG Foundation and Eco-Cycle

In 2016, Colorado set its first statewide recycling goal to get to a 28 percent recycling rate by 2021. That would keep 1.5 million tons of waste out of landfills each year.

But advocates say the state hasn’t done enough to get there. It didn’t provide funding, staff or resources to help it meet the recycling goals, Bailey said.

MORE: Coloradans generate 9.6 pounds of trash per person, per day. Where does it all go?

Efforts have also been stymied by external forces this year. Many who recycle must pay extra to do so, and fees increased sharply as recyclers faced new restrictions on what a major buyer like China would accept. China stopped taking a lot of the world’s trash this year in an effort to clean up its own country.

And then there’s population growth.

“The amount of trash we produced went up and some of that is driven by the increase in population,” Bailey admitted. “But we’re also seeing the amount of waste we’re producing per capita continue to go up. It’s not just the amount of people that’s affecting this.”

Momentum Recycling in Broomfield buys dirty glass from several Colorado collectors in the Denver and Colorado Springs area. The company cleans the glass so it can used in consumer products, like bottles. (Photo courtesy of Chris Schneider, Momentum Recycling)

There are programs that are having success in the state and elsewhere that could be implemented statewide, she said. Longmont, for example, launched its curbside compost collection last year. That contributed to the city’s 5 point increase to a 40 percent recycling rates in a year.

Recycling needs to be more accessible, said John Lair, CEO of Momentum Recycling, which opened a glass processing plant in Broomfield two years ago.

“I think Coloradans want to recycle, but they need access to the infrastructure,” Lair said. “We need to expand (recycling options) without it being a financial penalty.”

Lair’s company saw the gap in Colorado recycling and now helps local facilities like Bestway in Colorado Springs or Alpine Waste in Denver, clean discarded glass until its fit for consumer products. Previously, the glass couldn’t be cleaned enough so it went to alternative uses such as covers for landfills.

Today, Momentum cleans 4,000 to 5,000 tons of recycled glass a month from Colorado customers — much that goes back into bottles or other consumer products. The facility also is running at a 70 percent capacity, so there’s room to accept more glass.

“The hardest part is the paper labels. We have to get those off,” said Lair, but it’s OK to leave the labels on. “We want to keep it easy on the consumer. The more barriers you put up, the more consumers choose not to do this.”

Crews at Alpine’s Altogether Recycling in Denver go through their daily process of sorting through mountains of recyclable materials on July 20, 2018. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The statistics in the Eco-Cycle report are from 2017 data collected by the state Hazardous Materials & Waste Management Division. The numbers are based on weight of household trash that goes to landfills or gets redirected to a recycler.

But the flat growth doesn’t reflect other efforts that are happening in the state, said Kelly MacGregor, a spokeswoman for the state waste management agency.

“While it’s unfortunate the statewide diversion rate did not increase in 2017, the quantity of glass recycled in Colorado doubled in 2017 and composting of organic materials, such as food waste and yard waste, was at an all time high,” MacGregor said in an email. “The 2017 composting tonnage is the largest amount of material sent for composting in any calendar year since we began collecting data on recycling and composting in 2007.”

MORE: Recycling in Colorado is tedious, cost-prohibitive, voluntary — and evolving

Regional data is also difficult to find because most cities don’t track this at all. That’s something the state should take the lead on, Bailey said.

The Eco-Cycle report lists only 26 cities that saw recycling rates improve or decline in the past year because those are the only ones that track it, Bailey said.

“All those cities on the list, no matter where their recycling is, deserve credit for having recycling and tracking their data. All the cities not on the list don’t track the data so they can’t tell us what’s happening. In most cases, there’s very limited recycling in those communities,” she said. “There are 250-plus communities in the state. A great first step is we need to start measuring where we are so we can move up.”

This story was updated on May 24, 2019 to include the state’s recycling rate in the Eco-Cycle report.


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