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Marcus McCauley manually floods his Boulder County land to “test different practices for carbon sequestration to see what moves the needle most." Soil health is one issue analyzed by an interim legislative committee. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers spent months deliberating ways to address Colorado’s abysmal recycling rate, but in the end, a special committee mostly agreed to keep studying the issue.

Two of five draft bills considered by the Zero Waste and Recycling Interim Study Committee advanced Tuesday. The first would study how to use tax breaks to incentivize Colorado companies to help convert recycled items into new products.

The second would require the state to create a proposal for a statewide composting management plan that would help improve soil quality and sequester more carbon.

The end result falls short of the more ambitious goals set by state Rep. Lisa Cutter, the committee’s chairwoman. She pursued legislation earlier this year to improve Colorado’s recycling rate and increase waste diversion from landfills, but it was punted to an interim committee that began meeting in July. The two measures don’t take concrete action, but she suggested they represent progress.

“It’s a really complicated problem, and the conversation isn’t stopping here,” the Morrison Democrat said in an interview.

Colorado’s recycling rate landed at 17.2% in 2018, lower than the prior year and way below the national average of 35%, according to a state report

That leaves Colorado well short of its recycle goal of 28% by 2021. Lawmakers are hopeful that these bills are a step in the right direction to start to address the state’s low recycling rates, but others worry about whether they will have any meaningful impact. 

MORE: Colorado has two years to hit its 28% recycling goal. A new report shows we’re nowhere close.

Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Westminster, said the bills are a step in the right direction, but there is still much to do. “I am not sure they’re going to have a measurable effect on increasing recycling. But I don’t think that means the committee was a waste of time.” 

The first obstacle: Keeping recycled materials in Colorado

The draft legislation to promote the development of new markets for recycled goods essentially boils down to a new study group, which will provide a report of its findings by July 2021. The ultimate goal is to develop infrastructure that allows businesses in Colorado to process and use the state’s recyclable materials, instead of sending tons overseas.

“There’s two pieces to the puzzle when it comes to getting recycling to work in Colorado, and one is the supply side, basically making sure that we have enough materials that are entering into the recycling markets,” said Randy Moorman, policy committee chairman of nonprofit Recycle Colorado. “And the other big piece is that we have the infrastructure to handle it.”

The effort, led by Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, didn’t come without controversy. He revised the initial draft to remove a requirement that businesses selling alcohol must recycle in order to get their alcohol permits.

If passed, the bill would allow the state’s Pollution Prevention Advisory Board to develop a way to give recycling businesses a break on their property taxes. The money would come, in part, from a trash fee that will be charged in 13 Front Range counties starting in 2020.

Moreno, a lead state budget writer, was the only lawmaker to oppose the bill. He objected to the tax break for recycling companies. “Business property taxes apply uniformly to all businesses across Colorado. So I worry a little bit about the precedent we would be setting.”

MORE: A breakdown of the 8 issues Colorado lawmakers will study before the 2020 legislative session

Marcus McCauley, a Boulder County farmer who works with Mad Agriculture, manually floods his farm west of Longmont as he tests soil regeneration practices for carbon sequestration. The issue of soil health and carbon capture are issues analyzed by an interim legislative committee. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A novel plan to improve soil health –– and possibly address climate change

The second measure that moved forward is designed to help agricultural producers improve soil health and use compost, which is less cost-effective compared to synthetic fertilizers and is not accessible in large quantities. Gov. Jared Polis’ administration would be tasked with creating a composting management plan that also would examine the costs, revenues and greenhouse gas impacts related to using more organic waste.

In September, the committee heard from Mad Agriculture, a nonprofit agricultural organization that is working to promote regenerative farming practices, which help farmers bolster soil health, improve crop productivity and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

“Compost is one of the many practices that improves soil health,” said Max Neumeyer, Mad Ag’s policy director. “And it’s not just good for soil it’s also good for society. When you use compost and sequester CO2, it can make our food more nutritious, it helps us use water more efficiently, and it helps farmers lower input prices so they’re spending less money on fertilizer.”

Neumeyer said a huge hurdle for the bill addressing statewide compost management is lack of infrastructure in rural Colorado. Another barrier is cost.

“The way our food system is structured, compost is more expensive than synthetic fertilizer. And it shouldn’t be, because synthetic fertilizer has many more externalities for the environment, especially for waterways and climate.”

He also said that redirecting food waste from landfills to help improve soil health for farmers is a win-win for everyone.

“I would hope that these bills will lay the groundwork for farmers in rural Colorado to use compost instead of fertilizer. And that it would provide the infrastructure to do so,” Neumeyer said.

MORE: How a first-year Colorado lawmaker tried to “go big or go home” with a zero-waste bill

Other ideas didn’t make it to the finish line, but may reemerge

One of the big ideas –– a bottle fee –– didn’t get discussed because lawmakers pulled it from consideration.

A draft of the measure proposed a 10-cent deposit fee on glass, metal or plastic bottles or cans up to 3 liters to encourage more consumers to recycle. Moreno, who pushed the concept, said he is still committed to the cause, citing its effectiveness in other states.

“The bottle redemption program, I still strongly believe has a place in this solution,” he said. “… We should really carefully consider any unintended consequences before we move forward.”

The major opposition came from major beverage companies such as Pepsi, Coke and beer makers. Moreno said he favors a program not run by government but instead run by the distributors and retailers, who use the revenue to offset the cost of the program. This differs from how it was unsuccessfully proposed in previous years in Colorado. “This time it’s: Can we create a privately run co-op where we can increase recycling but also give industry the revenue and tools that they need to do it on their own terms,” he said.

A related measure designed to increase public awareness also was sidelined. It would have required the Department of Public Health and Environment to administer a statewide education campaign to educate residents about what can be recycled.

Moorman, at Recycle Colorado, said lawmakers need to go further to improve the state’s recycling rate and reduce waste disposal. But he praised the interim committee’s action.

“It’s a step in the right direction that Colorado has to take,” he said. “We’ve got to take a lot of action to move the needle and get us to where we need to be and to get us to be a leader in the country.”

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15