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Waste Management crews at the Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site (DADS) continue work on maintaining the landfill, recycling, and compost on July 18, 2018 in Aurora. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With all the campaigns and eco-guilt heaped on Coloradans to recycle, the state just released new data showing that we’re still not where we want to be.

The state’s recycling rate for 2018 landed at 17.2%, which is below the prior year’s 20.5%.

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Memberships start at just $5/month, but act now to get our biggest discount ever on our Newsletters+ membership, which includes access to members-only newsletters The Unaffiliated (Colorado politics) and The Outsider (everything outdoors by Jason Blevins).

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But before anyone gets all judgy, the state’s Department of Public Health & Environment overhauled how it tracks waste data, so past results shouldn’t be compared to the new stats. It now focuses on how much households and businesses toss in the trash and recycle instead of comparing recycling to everything that lands in a landfill.

The new method is the same as other states, and there are nuances that indicate Coloradans are recycling more than they once did.  Still, the state’s goals haven’t changed: It must still hit a 28% recycling rate by 2021.

“We’re generating about the same amount of waste (as other states), which means our data is good,” said Wolf Kray, CDPHE’s environmental protection specialist. “Their quantity of recycling is much higher than ours. This is our first clear picture that Colorado is generating the same amount of waste as everyone else, but we’re recycling less.”

Other states’ rates are double or triple that of Colorado. Minnesota, which is comparable in population, had a 33.5% recycling rate in 2017. Oregon’s was 42.1% in 2017. (Many of Colorado’s neighbors don’t track their recycling rates.)

Recycling advocates say the lack of curbside recycling in many communities is a big reason people don’t recycle. It’s not convenient. It often costs extra. There’s confusion as to what can be recycled. And China, previously the largest buyer of used paper and plastics, stopped taking much of the world’s waste last year in order to clean up its own country.

It doesn’t help that there is still room in state landfills, Kray said.

“We don’t exactly have a landfill crisis on our hands in Colorado, but at the same time, there are multiple landfills looking at closing because they’re running out of space. Larimer County is one and Pitkin is not going to be opening up another facility but their current cell is near capacity,” Kray said. “The more waste we generate, it has to go somewhere.”

The new data-collection method will make it easier to measure improvement or declines. But the new data didn’t surprise Kate Bailey, policy and research director of Eco-Cycle, a non-profit recycler in Boulder County.

“Colorado continues to lag far behind the national average when it comes to recycling — we are officially recycling at only half of the national average,” Bailey said in an email. “It’s a bit surprising the states that are doing better: for example, I just saw a story that Alabama hit a 25% recycling rate this year for the first time.”

Residents of Larimer County bring their recyclable items to the Waste Management Recycling Center and crews work with Area 5A at the Larimer County Landfill on July 12, 2018, in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Why the data changed

The old method, which put Colorado’s rate at 12.3% and 20.5% in 2017, was based on trash that ended up in state landfills compared to what recyclers reported to the state. The higher recycling rate included scrap metal, the lower rate didn’t.

But there was a big flaw in calculating the household recycling rate. The state only had landfill data, which included a large chunk of construction debris and industrial waste. It included used oil, antifreeze, coal ash and even tires. The state had previously figured out the household recycling rate by a process of elimination — subtract recovered tires, composted feedstock and all other industrial waste diverted away from the landfill.

That left a lot of unrecycled industrial debris.

To get at the real rate of consumer recycling, the state worked with landfill operators for years to categorize where trash came from each time someone dumped a haul in the landfill. With the 2018 data, the state now knows that 4.4 million tons of industrial waste remains in the landfill while another 4.4 million tons of industrial waste was diverted away from it. In previous years, the state recycling rate would have included the industrial waste, making the household recycling rate look much smaller than it should be.

“This is our baseline going forward,” Kray said.

Under the new calculation, every Coloradan recycles 1.2 pounds of material a day. In other states, like Minnesota, that per-capita recycling rate is 2.6 pounds. Nevada’s at 1.5 pounds. Washington state is at 3.1 pounds.

To better understand why people do or don’t recycle, the agency has conducted surveys over the years and even made site visits to landfills.

Last year, the agency took samples from various landfills to see what recyclable materials were getting tossed. Glass, aluminum and other metals, magazines and newspapers were all prevalent, though they were just a small portion of the trash. Glass containers, for example, were estimated to be 4.2% of the waste in landfills.  

Found in the landfill were also plastics (13.2%), cardboard (6.5%) and junk mail (1.5%). But the largest type of contributor was organic waste, at 37.8%. Food scraps, yard cuttings, clean wood and other materials could be composted or reused. Ultimately, the agency found a mere 4.5% of the waste in the landfill was real waste with no other place to go. That means 95.5% of landfill waste could have been diverted, Kray said.

“I think participation is still kind of questionable in Colorado, especially in the Front Range,” he said. “If it’s not convenient, we don’t see people making the effort to recycle.”

Behind the data

But digging deeper into the data, Coloradans may be doing better than a 17.2% rate indicates.

Coloradans recycled 295,112 tons of cardboard last year, the most in five years. That’s an increase of 20.3% from 2017, which is attributed to the state’s growing population and penchant for online shopping. A dip in cardboard recycling from 2016 to 2017 was probably people holding off on recycling cardboard until after the holidays, Kray theorized.

Recycling for other typical materials declined or were stagnant, though for good reasons. The amount of paper and electronics continued to drop because people are using less paper and computer products weigh less. Newspapers, for example, used to make up 70% of recycled paper waste.  

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

“Think about the weight of CRT monitors,” Kray said. “They were 60 to 80 pounds. Now we have flat screen monitors that are 8 to 20 pounds.”

The same trend affected plastics. More people are recycling single-use items like plastic water bottles. But because the state tracks the data by weight, those recycling efforts aren’t that impressive, improving 9.5% last year from 2017.

But a 9.5% weight gain means a lot more than it used to. Plastic water bottles, in particular, are much lighter than they were in the past. According to the International Bottled Water Association, by 2014 the average 16.9-ounce PET plastic water bottle had declined 48% in weight from 2000.

The 25,721 tons of plastic recycled by Coloradans last year probably contained many more water bottles and plastic containers than the 22,347 tons recycled in 2014.

“It takes so many more plastic water bottles to make a ton of plastic than it used to,” Kray said.

Momentum glass recycling in Broomfield, Colorado on February 1, 2017. (Provided by Chris Schneider for Momentum Recycling)

Other big changes to the amount of materials diverted from landfills was due to business activity. Momentum Recycling, which opened a glass processing plant in Broomfield two years ago, was a major contributor to doubling the amount of glass getting recycled. Last year, about 45,000 tons of glass was recycled statewide, compared to 22,200 tons two years ago.

Yard trimmings increased 52.1%, and Kray attributes that to more companies getting involved in recycling yard waste.

Likewise, the shuttering of a $100 million anaerobic digester plant in Weld County that relied on billions of microbes to turn food and other organic waste into natural gas caused a 10% drop in composting statewide, after improving the amount composted by more than 117,000 tons in 2017. (The smell from the Heartland Biogas plant in LaSalle ended with the county pulling permits and the company filing a lawsuit.)

Heartland and Weld County officials did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Making recycling easier

The Town of Carbondale is the latest to adopt city-wide recycling service, which starts Sept. 30.

According to Eco-Cycle, curbside recycling is available in at least 27 cities around the state. That’s helped those areas get residential recycling rates above the 20% mark, with some, like Loveland, hitting 61%. It’s about making recycling accessible, proponents say.

Carbondale will shift from a town where residents hired a private trash collector to just one option — Mountain Waste & Recycling. Residents pay based on the size of the trash can, which is expected to incentivize people to recycle because it’s included in the price.

More: Colorado trash companies invest millions to speed up recycling. Now they just need more people to recycle.

But the pursuit of a single trash service took years to come to fruition, said Town Manager Jay Harrington.

“Our elected officials identified it as a high priority a couple years ago,” Harrington said. “The town has a fairly aggressive climate action plan and a large chunk of the board really saw that we really needed to reduce our waste footprint and reduce the truck traffic on town streets as a critical part of reaching some of our climate action goals.”

According to earlier surveys, Harrington said some residents were paying $25 to $75 a month for trash service. Using volume-based pricing, residents opting for the smallest trash can — 32 gallons –pay $13.84 per month. The largest bin, 96 gallons, runs $51.52 a month. Bear-proof cans are about $10 more per month.     

The state has different goals for urban and rural areas. The Front Range was at an 18% recycling rate last year and needs to reach 32% by 2021. Rural Colorado, on the other hand, passed its goal of 10% by hitting 10.7% last year, according to state data.

“They’re doing a good job to get past 10% for rural Colorado,” Kray said. “It’s difficult to have a recycling program when you have to travel so far to recycle. But there are new goals every five years, and there’s another one (for rural Colorado) after 10%.”

Bailey, with Eco-Cycle, said the state’s change in measuring recycling is more accurate and will be helpful as a true guidepost. But the answer may be to rely less on containers that can wind up in the trash. Her organization is targeting the plastics industry to phase out single-use plastics and replace hard-to-recycle Nos. 3, 6 and 7 plastics. It’s urging companies to invest in bottle-to-bottle recycling so something like a plastic water bottle gets cleaned and reused instead of chemically recycled.

“We are pushing several reduction strategies particularly when it comes to plastics, many of which are more focused on industry changes and product redesigns than individual behavior changes,” she said.

Because, she added, “recycling is not always the best solution.”

More: Recycling can be a hard sell in rural Colorado. That hasn’t discouraged a resourceful nonprofit effort in tiny Swink.

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...