• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
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)

Colorado’s recycling rate has dramatically improved — but read this with a giant asterisk. 

We’re now at 17.2% for 2018, an increase from the prior year’s 12%, according to the latest “State of Recycling in Colorado” report produced by Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. The difference was in how household recycling was tracked by the state between 2017 and 2018 (one includes some industrial debris; one doesn’t).

The other asterisk? Coloradans still generated 1.4 million tons more trash in 2018 than in 2017. 

“We need to stop producing as much waste and then we need to be recycling more as well,” said Kate Bailey, director of Eco-Cycle, the non-profit recycling organization in Boulder. “Our recycling rate is half the national average. We’re still way behind our peer states. There are signs that there’s momentum, and we’re moving in the right direction, but we really need to pick up the pace.”

Cities with top recycling rates:

  • Loveland, 60%
  • Louisville, 53%
  • Boulder, 52%
  • Lafayette, 38%
  • Longmont, 36%
  • Durango, 33%
  • Golden, 31%
  • Superior, 30%
  • Aspen, 27%
  • Fort Collins, 27%
  • Greenwood Village, 27%
  • Vail, 25%
  • Denver, 23%
  • Source: “The State of Recycling, 2019” by Eco-Cycle, Colorado Public Interest Research Group

Surprisingly, 2018 didn’t mark a setback for Colorado. Last year, China stopped buying used paper and plastic from the United States and other nations as it sought to clean up its own country. The fallout was dramatic with trash companies hunting for new buyers for recycled materials and raising residential customer prices.

There were reports in Philadelphia that half of the city’s recycling was getting incinerated. One trash hauler in Oregon sent all of its recycling to the landfill

In Colorado this year, Fort Collins stopped accepting low-value plastics, Cortez stopped accepting  newspapers. And recycler Terra Firma in Trinidad shut down

By June this year, recyclers were reportedly getting paid less than $30 a ton for cardboard, compared to $180 a ton in 2017, according to industry publication Resource Recycling. (It also costs companies to recycle paper now, paying $2 a ton.)

View: The State of Recycling in Colorado 2019

Colorado’s distance from West Coast ports helped offset some of the impact from the China pullout, Bailey said. The state also started with a much lower recycling rate than other states. Oregon was at 42.8% at the end of 2017, while Minnesota was around 44%. The national recycling rate (including composting) was 34.7% in 2015.

“We want to make sure that Colorado knows that recycling here is still working, and we should still be recycling, but we can be doing a lot more,” Bailey said. “But we don’t want people to give up on it based on what they may have read about what’s happening elsewhere.”

One way to encourage more recycling is to make it easy with curbside pickup so residents don’t have to visit a recycling center. Among the state’s 10 largest cities, only three — Denver, Fort Collins and Thornton — provide curbside recycling to all residents, according to the report. About 30 cities statewide offer service to all residents. Other cities leave it up to residents to seek out a trash company that offers recycling.

But it’s not easy getting cities to approve a single trash service. Lakewood voters rejected the effort last week. And Arvada’s City Council decided not to put it on the ballot this year, city spokesman Ben Irwin said. 

“Council has directed staff to gather more detailed information regarding pricing and service options for further consideration regarding next steps for the waste hauling issue,” Irwin said in an email.

Momentum Recycling, which opened its glass recovery plant in Broomfield two years ago, could use more glass. Founder and CEO John Lair said the facility runs between 65% to 75% capacity on any given month. 

“Many communities don’t currently require recycling, and if that could change, we would reach capacity quickly,” he said in an email. 

Colorado has a state goal to get to a 28% recycling rate by 2021. The goal is higher for the Front Range, at 32%. That’s because the Front Range produces 85% of the state’s waste. When Eco-Cycle did the calculations, it found that Front Range residents produce a pound more of trash per person per day than their rural neighbors. Bailey attributed the extra waste to a to-go lifestyle and convenience culture of package delivery.

Outside the Front Range, the region has already met its 2021 goal of 10%. It’s at 10.7% for 2018. 

Bailey, with Eco-Cycle, feels optimistic that we’ll get there, partly thanks to a law passed last legislative session that will raise fees for dumping trash in landfills. Up to $15 million raised under the new Front Range Waste Diversion Enterprise Grant Program would provide grants to local governments and organizations working on diverting recycling from landfills. 

“The new pot of money that’s available to help cities is a huge step forward,” she said. “That’s really one of our big signs of success that Colorado is starting to take recycling more seriously.”

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

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...