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Colorado has a dismal recycling rate. Could a fee on manufacturers turn things around?

Just 15% of recyclable and compostable material was diverted from landfills in Colorado in 2020.

Mounds of trash piled next to a dumpster in an alley off South Santa Fe Drive and West 10th Avenue on Nov. 16, 2021, in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In Boulder, where every resident automatically receives access to recycling and composting services, more than half of the city’s waste is diverted from landfills.

But in many Colorado cities and towns, residents who want to recycle must pay extra, or make a trip to recycling centers. 

The discrepancy between the relative ease of recycling in some Front Range cities and the difficulty elsewhere dragged Colorado’s recycling rate to less than half the national average and well below state goals, resulting in most of the state’s recyclable waste being sent to landfills for burial, according to a new report.

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Now, recycling advocates are calling for a fee on certain manufacturers to help make recycling as easy everywhere in the state as it is in Boulder. 

Just 15% of recyclable and compostable material was diverted from landfills in Colorado in 2020, according to the fifth edition of the State of Recycling and Composting, an annual report from Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Group or CoPIRG. That’s compared to a 32% rate nationwide, and nowhere close to a 28% goal for 2021 set by the Colorado Solid and Hazardous Waste Commission

The report found vast discrepancies in recycling and composting rates statewide, with high rates in northern Front Range cities where recycling programs tend to be easier for consumers to use, and far lower rates in much of rural Colorado, where municipal recycling programs are much more spotty.

The two nonprofit organizations behind the report are pushing for a “producer responsibility” bill in the state legislature that would require manufacturers of packaged goods to pay into a fund that would standardize recycling and compost collection statewide.

Loveland topped the list of residential recycling and composting rates at 58%, with Boulder in second place at 53% and Longmont in third place at 41%. The only municipality outside the Front Range that ranked in the top five was No. 4 Telluride at 36%. Lafayette came in fifth at 34%. 

Cities with high recycling rates have five things in common, the report found: universal curbside recycling programs in which every resident is provided with a recycling bin; volume-based pricing for trash that encourages recycling as opposed to flat rates for all trash; drop-off centers or curbside programs for yard debris; clear guidelines on what materials can be recycled; and dedicated staff and funding for recycling programs. 

In many municipalities, residents do not automatically receive recycling services and must subscribe if they want them, including in large cities whose recycling rates are not included in the report, such as Aurora, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Pueblo. On average, only 30% of residents subscribe to curbside recycling under opt-in programs, the report found.

“The cost of recycling was cited by multiple municipalities as the most significant challenge to their programs,” the report says, referring to financial impacts on consumers, businesses and governments alike.

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Among Coloradans who must subscribe to recycling programs, rates are much higher in rural and mountain areas. Nearly all paper, metal and plastic recycling must be shipped out of state for processing, adding transportation costs to consumers’ bills. 

The report says many of the barriers to increasing the state’s recycling rate could be addressed with a “producer responsibility” policy, similar to laws in Oregon and Maine that require manufacturers of packaged goods to pay into a fund to help cover the cost of automatic recycling programs statewide. 

Though the proposal isn’t finalized, CoPIRG executive director Danny Katz said Monday during a webinar that manufacturers would sit on the board of a nonprofit that would decide how to allocate fees toward curbside recycling programs or drop-off centers. The proposal does not say how much it would cost to improve recycling services across the state.

Fees would likely be higher on non-recyclable packaging like certain types of plastic or polystyrene, Katz said, creating an incentive to cut down on packaging or increase the use of recyclable materials. 

Katz said CoPIRG, Eco-Cycle and other environmental groups have been in talks with Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson and Democratic Rep. Lisa Cutter of Morrison to introduce the bill in the 2022 legislative session

“We need groundbreaking policy to break the cycle of poor recycling that we have fallen into here,” Katz said.

The policy runs the risk of incentivizing manufacturers to pass the cost of fees down to consumers, said Suzanne Jones, the executive director of Eco-Cycle. But she said it could also introduce competition to reduce waste.

“Would your toothpaste tube go up (in price)? Maybe, but the winners would be those companies who use less packaging,” Jones said.

Overall, 5.9 million tons of waste were added to Colorado’s landfills last year, the report found. Despite low recycling rates, Colorado’s efforts aren’t for naught, the report says. Recycling and composting last year reduced greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado equivalent to removing more than 407,000 cars from the road, and fueled more than 86,000 jobs and generated $8.7 billion in economic benefits statewide.

The report also touted recent state legislation on sustainability, including a measure signed into law this year that largely bans single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers by 2024, and the newly created Colorado Agricultural Soil Health Program, which encourages farmers and ranchers to adopt soil conservation practices with an emphasis on regenerating soil with compost. 

The report lauded several Colorado towns for making headway on recycling programs, including Longmont, which increased its year-over-year recycling and composting rate by 6% thanks in large part to growth in its curbside composting program; Durango and Golden, which added curbside composting to their citywide trash and recycling services; Arvada and Johnstown, which launched new citywide curbside recycling programs; Superior and Colorado Springs, which hired their first sustainability staff; and Boulder, which launched an education and outreach program to increase recycling at mobile home parks.


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