Recycling is down in Colorado while the amount of trash produced is up.
But don’t blame it on COVID-19 and the numerous to-go containers Coloradans used to patronize local restaurants and businesses in the pandemic.
The most recent data is from 2019, months before the first coronavirus case in the state was confirmed. According to Eco-Cycle’s annual “State of Recycling & Composting in Colorado,” the state’s recycling rate dropped to 15.9% in 2019, from 17.2% the year before.
“The data is definitely a little disappointing,” said Kate Bailey, policy and research director for Eco-Cycle, the Boulder-based nonprofit recycling organization. “But at the same time, we have put into place two really big policy changes and we’ve got a lot of these community models moving forward. We’re optimistic that we’re on the right track and that this is a super important thing to do for our climate.”
Bailey’s talking about state efforts to offer grants to municipalities to start their own recycling programs, plus the state’s investment in “end markets” that actually do something with the recycled material. Recycling lost a major end market two years ago, when China stopped accepting much of the world’s recycling. Many local waste haulers increased recycling fees for residential customers, which resulted in some cancellations.
The 2019 Front Range Waste Diversion Enterprise grant program provided grants to cities like Arvada, which is launching a curbside recycling program. The city used grant money to provide a recycling bin to nearly every home at no charge.
Making recycling more affordable was important but Arvada Mayor Pro Tem Dot Miller said her community was also ready for a citywide recycling program. That’s unlike a decade ago, when she said the city contemplated a single hauler to cut down on numerous trash companies driving through the same neighborhoods daily.
“It was shot down with just incredible lightning from the community. Council members got death threats,” said Miller, during a conference call on Monday on the Eco-Cycle report. “… It was too early. And now, people know and understand the importance of recycling a little bit better 10 years later.”
But even as moods and policies have changed in the state, the annual Eco-Cycle report found that Colorado sent 5% more trash to landfills in 2019, even as the population grew just 1.3%. Most of that came from the Front Range, where residents on average sent 6 pounds of trash to the landfill a day, compared with Coloradans in mountain and rural areas who sent 4.7 pounds. That’s roughly 28% more trash by the average resident in the Front Range.
Part of the increase in waste was blamed on more construction projects, with cities like Denver seeing numerous office towers and apartment buildings go up. But other reasons were the same as the past: lack of curbside recycling in most cities means residents must make a concerted effort.
“Our state’s recycling rate dropped to less than 16%, which is far below the national average of 35%,” said Suzanne Jones, Eco-Cycle’s executive director. “So we clearly have a lot more work to do here in Colorado to move our state forward.”
The Eco-Cycle report, which was also produced by Colorado Public Interest Research Group, looks at recycling programs for cities and towns in the state and combines the findings with recycling waste actually diverted from landfills. It reached out to 140 cities and towns in the state and found that only 39 have curbside recycling, which makes it so much easier on residents to make an effort.
That’s tough, however, for communities outside the Front Range, where it’s cost prohibitive to drive truckloads of recycled material to a facility that will accept it. Durango, which tied with Aspen as the top two recycling communities outside the Front Range, found partners to help those chores and find buyers for more of its commercial waste, which has helped the town increase commercial recycling by 10 to 12%.
“We have a great recycling partner (Friedman Recycling) in Albuquerque, who continues to find viable markets for our plastics,” Durango Mayor Pro Tem Kim Baxter said. “And we don’t have a municipal program to recycle (food), however we do have this amazing local company (Table to Farm Compost) who’s doing private composting. They go to each and every person who signs up, go to their house and pick up the compost. They’re at about 400 customers now and growing.”
Durango’s recycling rate increased 2% in a year and it’s now about 33%, she added. Baxter said the community wants more.
“One of our biggest challenges is we have a very small footprint for our recycling facility,” she said. “To add in the wonderful programs like Fort Collins is talking about with the construction debris, I’d love to do it, but we’re gonna have to figure out how to have more space to make those kinds of things happen.”
Fort Collins, by the way, recycles industrial materials from road and other construction projects by crushing concrete, wood and other metal aggregates at its Hoffman Mill Road crushing operation. “It recycles more concrete, asphalt and soil than all the waste generated by all of the houses and businesses in Fort Collins,” said Susan Gutowsky, a Fort Collins councilmember.
How Coloradans recycle during the coronavirus pandemic won’t be known until next year. But Bailey said that large trash and recycling companies are reporting that trash is down overall. With fewer large public events and canceled business meetings this year, there’s likely been less commercial waste, too.
The state has done much better than other states in terms of keeping recycling facilities open. About one-third of communities surveyed for the report said COVID-19 challenges resulted in temporarily closing down a recycling facility, but those have all reopened.
But Eco-Cycle organizers, however, prefer zero-waste since recycling only works if someone can figure out how to reuse plastic, paper and other items. The organization is promoting policies that would have greater impact than recycling, such as demanding that the producers and packaging companies pay into the recycling system or use less materials in the first place.
“If we’re going to grow recycling, we can’t do it at the expense of taxpayers. It can’t be something that’s primarily coming out of the municipal budget,” Bailey said. “We’re looking toward implementing policies at the state level that put more responsibility on the producers, so having the brands and the packaging companies pay into the recycling system. That’s where the investment is going to need to come from to get everybody recycling across the state and improve our infrastructure.”