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Single-stream recyclables are pictured in a nearly full Boulder County Recycling Center bin on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado is struggling to improve its stagnant waste-diversion rates, and environmental advocates say making progress is crucial in the effort to battle climate change and the effects of population growth. 

The state diverted just under 16% of its waste to recycling or compost in 2019, down from a 17% diversion rate in 2018 and well behind its goal of 28% diverted by this year. Both rates don’t look great compared to the national average of roughly 32% in 2018.

Colorado’s 2020 waste diversion numbers aren’t in yet, but the pandemic has significantly affected waste output. Globally, commercial waste decreased last year while household waste increased, as people spent more time at home. 

Colorado and the world celebrate Earth Day on Thursday, and experts and advocates are reexamining whom to hold responsible for recycling. Should consumers pay money to recycle, as many in Colorado already do? What’s the role of government when most waste collectors are private businesses? Do companies that create and sell recyclable materials have an obligation to foot the bill for processing those items?

Area 5A at the Larimer County Landfill on July 12, 2018 in Fort Collins. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There’s no lack of ideas on how to improve Colorado’s recycling rates, including through better infrastructure. The manufacturing loop for aluminum, for example, is almost closed. This means there are can makers, recyclers and smelting operations all in the state. But there’s a critical gap in that none of the smelters take recycled aluminum, which is processed differently than new aluminum, so it must be shipped elsewhere and often doesn’t return to Colorado. 

Even the glass bottle chain, which is closed in Colorado, could be strengthened by diverting more glass from landfills. There aren’t conclusive statistics statewide on recycling rates by material. But John Lair, who owns the glass processing plant Momentum Recycling, estimates that around 25% of glass that’s consumed gets recycled.

MORE: Glass can be recycled infinitely. Here’s how it works in Colorado’s “closed loop.”

Recycling rates are complicated, and a decrease year to year doesn’t mean people are recycling fewer pounds of waste. Changes from 2018 to 2019 were due to both population growth and more waste produced per person.

“We actually recycled almost literally the exact same amount,” said Jace Driver, an environmental protection specialist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Even so, major improvements are needed to both decrease the amount of waste as well as shift the ratio toward recyclable goods.

One topic that comes up frequently among experts, and that leans on the industry end of things, is extended producer responsibility, or EPR. Right now, it’s the consumers who pay to recycle products, whether by subscribing to a curbside pick-up service through their city or a private service. Consumers also often must pay extra for certain hard-to-process items like electronics and mattresses. The EPR model punts the cost of recycling to companies that make or use recyclable materials in their products, charging them to subsidize recycling services for consumers.

Senate Bill 55, which passed the legislature last year and was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis, kicked off a year-long process to explore ways the state can increase recycling rates, with an emphasis on improving the market for recycled materials that have been processed. A stakeholder meeting last week resulted in draft recommendations that are available for public comment, and a final report is due July 1.

But Senate Bill 55 wasn’t comprehensive, so another measure at the statehouse this year is trying to fill the gaps. Senate Bill 180 initially intended to create an enterprise that would finance programs encouraging higher recycling rates, with funds generated by fees on food service packaging. 

However, in a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday, sponsor Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, overhauled the legislation through an amendment. The bill now seeks to study a potential mandate on post-consumer recycled content, or PCRC, an area that Senate Bill 55 didn’t touch. 

The state could require products to include a minimum percentage threshold of reused materials. For example, a future glass bottle could be required to contain at least 50% recycled glass. The study would figure out if that’s feasible, as well as what realistic thresholds would be.

“We’d like to craft something that’s a little more elegant, that actually reflects a standard that’s achievable in the near future by current processes, industry and engineering,” Priola said.

There have been other legislative attempts in recent years to improve Colorado’s recycling rates. Priola also worked on Senate Bill 192 which passed in 2019 and authorized a Front Range-oriented fee on waste taken to landfills, with grants focused on programs that incentivize diversion. That program doled out more than $2 million in its first year. 

An Eco-Cycle recycling truck makes its rounds in Boulder on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

All three of the recycling bills have or had bipartisan support, which Priola attributed to the growing economic benefits of sustainability. He noted that many municipalities already reclaim their wastewater, and material waste is the next logical step. There are landfills in Priola’s Adams County district, and he said he’d rather see good blue collar jobs go to recycling operations than have garbage piles grow. 

“Are we ever going to be able to get rid of all trash and waste? No, but we can at least pull out as many useful items that can be reworked,” Priola said. “… I’m trying to turn lemons into lemonade.”

So-called “bottle bills” have been proposed multiple times over the years in Colorado as a way to encourage people to recycle. Consumers get a few cents of a refund for every bottle that they return to a collection facility under this model. There’s widespread support for such a measure among environmentalists, bottle manufacturers and waste management businesses. 

Data also shows bottle bills work. Ten other states have passed them, and the five states with the best recycling rates all facilitate bottle deposits. But these bills have never made it very far in Colorado. An effort pursued by an interim state legislative committee in 2019 was pulled before becoming a bill.

There’s also the issue of accessing and engaging with services. About 98% of Colorado residents live within range of curbside service from at least one recycling company, but not everyone subscribes. Driver with CDPHE said places with municipally-led curbside waste pickup have better recycling rates, though just a fraction of the more than 270 municipalities in Colorado offer that service. 

Boulder resident Kay Foelske sorts recyclables into bins at the Boulder County Recycling Center on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Arvada this summer will be the most recent city to offer municipal waste services. Its City Council approved a contract with Republic Services for both trash and recycling. Previously residents were on their own for waste collection services. Many residents and some councilmembers wanted to put the issue to a ballot vote, rather than have council sign off on it. But that motion was shut down, and the seven-person council voted 4-3 to move ahead with the contract after hours of public comment on both sides. 

The Arvada model is “pay as you throw,” where the monthly cost of trash and recycling service rises as bin size increases, according to Rachel Kuroiwa, communications manager for infrastructure. Households that don’t choose a service level by April 25 will automatically opt in for the largest containers, with one 95 gallon trash bin and one 95 gallon recycling bin. People can opt out of service, though they’ll pay the minimum rate of $5.13 every month if they do. The program, which will start service the week of July 5, is expected to more than double the amount of waste that’s diverted from a landfill for recycling, to 30% from 13%.

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There’s one thread that connects all these efforts: a shift to a collective-minded recycling. Rosie Briggs, community education and engagement manager for the Boulder County non-profit Eco-Cycle, says tools like waste footprint calculators can be interesting and useful to understand an individual’s environmental impact. But focusing on personal responsibility lets the most powerful entities — governments, companies and industries — off the hook for making change.

“In order to do the right thing, often, we have to kind of fight upstream,” Briggs said. “Like even remembering to refuse a straw is an example that the system doesn’t set us up for success.”

Recycling is more than just reducing the amount of stuff that goes to a landfill, Briggs says. It’s also about reusing materials that often require significant energy and environmental destruction to extract. Aluminum, for example, is made of bauxite, a mineral mined from open pits that destroy habitat in places like the Amazon rainforest

“We have a finite amount of natural resources on the planet, and the more we mine those natural resources, ship them all over the world, refine them using all of our energy, and then repeat that process, rather than just working with what we already have…” Briggs trailed off. “It’s just a silly thing for us to do.”

Lucy Haggard was a TRENDS Reporting Fellow from August 2020 to May 2021 with The Colorado Sun. Email: Twitter: @lucy_haggard