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Opinion: Why Colorado needs to take notes on recycling from abroad

With all of its 14ers, national parks and ecotourism, Colorado culture is often viewed as one of environmental stewardship that protects the natural wonders that characterize our state. However, our statewide recycling rate (the percentage of total waste generated that was recycled) was an unfortunate 17.2% in 2018 and a more depressing 15.9% in 2019. This pales in comparison to the country’s average recycling rate in 2018 of 32.1%. 

Additionally, Colorado’s poor recycling is detrimental to our economy; as of 2017, approximately $267 million worth of recyclable material in the state was being sent to the landfill annually

Beyond economic incentives, recycling conserves natural materials, saves energy, and reduces air and water pollution. In order to help protect the environment that makes Colorado so unique and boost the local economy, it is imperative that Colorado drastically remodel its recycling infrastructure.

Brianna Herner

In August 2017, Colorado’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Commission passed a resolution with recycling goals for the state in response to recent comparisons of Denver’s recycling rate to similar large U.S. cities. At the time, Denver’s recycling rate was 18% while Salt Lake City’s was 38% and the rate for Fresno, California, was 71%. Colorado’s statewide rates had also hovered between 10% and 20% for the past decade. 

The commission decided it was time for Colorado’s first waste diversion benchmarks and introduced the “Resolution of the Solid and Hazardous Waste Commission to Adopt Statewide and Regional Municipal and Solid Waste Diversion Goals for Colorado.” This resolution detailed interval waste diversion goals for three years for the Front Range (which is home to about 80% of the state’s population), the greater Colorado area, and the state as a whole. 

The recycling rate goals for 2021 are 32% for the 11 Front Range counties, 10% for “greater Colorado” (53 counties not including the Front Range), and 28% statewide. The goals for 2026 are 39% for the Front Range, 13% for greater Colorado, and 35% statewide. Finally, the goals for 2036 are 51% for the Front Range, 15% for greater Colorado, and 45% statewide. 

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But this resolution does not contain any regulatory changes, mandates, or penalties, therefore reducing incentives to achieve the recycling goals. 

Luckily, several successful recycling strategies have formed around the world that Colorado can learn from in order to revolutionize its own recycling infrastructure and meet its recycling goals.

Domestically, California (which has a recycling rate of about 40%) has experienced success in creating financially-motivated consumer participation in recycling programs. Governed by the California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, the California Redemption Value is a 5- or 10-cent monetary refund given to consumers per beverage container they recycle at a state-certified facility. 

This financial incentive, while small, can quickly build up and encourage consumers to properly recycle containers for small monetary gains instead of landfilling them.

Germany currently has the highest recycling rate in the world at 67%. The nation employs a “Green Dot” system where manufacturers label products with green-dot logos to indicate that the manufacturer made financial contributions to packaging recycling management. Recycling facilities must accept the packaging, therefore creating a closed loop recycling process for that product.

South Korea is another nation with a high recycling rate of 59%. Its waste disposal policy, called Jongnyangje, is strictly enforced by law and adhered to by citizens. South Korea is also a pioneer in successfully recycling food waste to be composted or used in animal feed with a food waste recycling rate of 95%. Citizens are charged by weight for producing food waste and Seoul residents have been legally required to recycle all food waste since 2013.

Sweden has a recycling rate of 48% and a dedicated culture of environmental protection. Sweden’s recycling success is derived from the crucial step of teaching citizens to separate their waste and recyclables, which is done using different colored bags. These efficiently sorted bags are sent to a recycling facility and sorted into recyclables and non-recyclables, the latter of which are combusted to produce electricity.

Color-coded consumer sorting of recyclables is also key in Germany and South Korea, suggesting that it is a hallmark of successfully improving recycling rates. The typical German home has six recycling bins for efficiently sorting different types of materials, such as plastic and different colored glass. In South Korea, color-coded waste bags are used by citizens to sort their waste by type and geographic district for effective sorting at a facility.

On July 13, Gov. Jared Polis signed the “Incentivize Development Recycling End Markets” bill that will make recycling more economically viable in Colorado. This bill will require the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to establish a recycling end-market development center for the state, provide financial and technical assistance for new local businesses that use recycled materials, and develop a statewide recycling education campaign.

With this bill as a step in the right direction, Colorado may be on its way to improving its waste diversion. Further legal measures to incentivize strict consumer recyclable sorting that improves end market efficiency would be the next logical step to improve Colorado’s recycling infrastructure. 

Through vigilance, dedication, and notes from abroad, Coloradans can make the dream of expansive and efficient recycling a reality.


Brianna Herner is an undergraduate Environmental Science student at the University of Denver.


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